Saphir is perhaps the world’s most renowned manufacturer of shoe care products, with a history that goes back over 100 years in time, while also contributing to the development of new shoe and leather care products. Shoegazing visited the company’s factory in the eastern part of France.
A bit outside the small town Angoulême, with a fantastic historical center surrounded by more modern industrial neighborhoods, in the middle of the country between farms, fields and pastures, Saphir’s now quite large factory complex is housed. Recently, a state-of-the-art logistics warehouse and office space was inaugurated here, while the factory is located in an older 70s building with concrete walls. In here, shoe care products are manufactured which in some cases are made on over 100 years old recipes, but also a laboratory where you experiment and develop new products. Saphir is a constant clash of old and new, historical and modern, administration and innovation.
Here I meet the company’s strong man, Marc Moura, who takes us into the wooden paneled office part of the old building, where the walls are decorated with old awards and a showroom shows a selection of products from the past. Saphir is owned by Avel, which is part of the Alma group. It was founded by Marc Moura’s father Alexandre Moura in 1977. Two years later, the old French shoe brand Saphir was bought, and the journey towards becoming one of the foremost international players in shoe care began. Today, in addition to Saphir, they own among others Tarrago, La Cordonnerie Anglais, Dunkelmann and thereby Dasco, and a factory that manufactures shoe blocks. Especially in premium shoe care, they are a world leader.
Marc Moura is very clear that he wants to maintain that position for a long time to come:
– We have a very strong foundation in all our brands, not least with Saphir and the fantastic shoe creams and waxes that’s been around since the 1920s. But it’s the fact that we have been good at continuing to develop the brands and new products that have taken us to the position we have today, he says.
One floor up from the old office part the production itself is housed. In a room where the raw materials are received, staff are knocking down large wax cakes into smaller pieces, before they are to go through the first part of the process of becoming part of a leather care product.
Various waxes are the main ingredients in both shoe cream and wax polish, but also in many other types of leather care products. Marc explains that there are about 40 different types of waxes with different properties used in leather care products, divided into mineral waxes, animal waxes and vegetable waxes (the fourth wax category, petroleum waxes, is not used for leather care). You also often have oils of various kinds, depending on the product. Most shoe creams and wax polish in the world use roughly the same types of ingredients, what vary is for example the blends and the quality of the raw materials, and that some cheaper products use more synthetic substances such as silicone and others. Saphir uses no such thing, however, turpentine is a common ingredient as a solvent, it’s a natural substance but highly flammable, for this reason one would not be able to have this type of factory inside a city.
– A challenge for us is that the prices of the raw materials we use have risen in several cases. For example, the Portuguese turpentine that we experience is best is 25 percent more expensive today than a few years ago, shea butter is sought after by manufacturers of beauty products, and carnuba wax has started to be used more by the automotive industry in recent years, which has pushed up prices, says Marc Moura.
Most of the manufacturing takes place inside the factory’s largest room. Here are different parts with machines that handle different types of products and packaging. Since shoe care is a relatively small industry, there are not standardised machines for this type of production in many cases, so Saphir has had to build its own solutions. Therefore, it’s sensitive to view images of entire machines.
– The fact that we have a high degree of automation when it comes to, for example, filling cans and so on is one of the reasons why we can keep competitive prices, even though the content is of the high, expensive quality we have, Marc says, at the same time as he inspects a machine where wide rows of wax cans slowly enter a sort of tunnel and is filled with burgundy wax polish.
When we walk into the new building, which is perhaps twice the size of the factory itself, the feeling is quite different. In the warehouse part, it’s very high ceilings, with fireproof construction and foam extinguishing instead of water sprinklers, so as not to damage the goods. The building was an investment of approximately €7,5 million.
However, it’s the company’s laboratory, where much of the development takes place, that makes the biggest impression on me during my visit here. Here everything is tied together, their historical foundation with the development propensity, and also the interesting combination of being a large company and a small flexible producer. Here two chemists work, just as many have in Tarrago’s factory in Spain, and this is where new products are being created. This is often done after input from customers or in collaboration with various professional shoe shiners. When I visit, they are in the final phase developing a new kind of leather cleaning for the Saphir Medaille d’Or series, which is sort of between the renovateur cream and the renomat. I participated in testing it on slightly different leather, and actually gave it its name, Leather Cleanser.
Along the shelves in the lab are jars, tubes and bottles from the last two years of production, so that they can go back and check different batches if needed. There are also lots of different samples that they have developed, many that have never been finished products for various reasons, or earlier steps in the development of things you have launched.
– I’m quite often here in the lab. It’s an inspiring place, and very exciting things happen here, says Marc Moura.
What is fascinating is that here they also make various “bespoke” orders, both for companies and private individuals who, for example, need leather color in a very specific shade, and they then produce exactly the product that is in demand. Quite cool that a company established in 80 markets around the world, a giant in this context, is also engaged in small special orders like this.
– Not many people have the opportunity to develop these things, and although it’s not something that we make a lot of money of, leather care is something we care about, and want to do what we can.