Camels have long been a Bedouin’s best friend, providing food, clothing, transportation, shelter and protection, and becoming a symbol of reliability and resilience in the harsh Arabian climate. Former UAE president and ruler of Abu Dhabi HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan wanted to take this one step further, building the Al Khaznah tannery almost eight years ago to transform local camel hides into finished leather. His vision only came into fruition two years ago, when the tannery began operating – it now supplies businesses across the UAE, including furniture design company Mira Designs in Dubai.
As well as creating butter-soft leather in all manner of colours and finishes, Al Khaznah’s products are biodegradable and produced using environmentally friendly and sustainable methods. And it’s not just local suppliers that are benefitting: the tannery’s unique techniques have ensured it is now on its way to supplying camel leather to some of Paris’s famous fashion houses.
For all these reasons and more, we paid a visit to Al Khaznah, where we learned about the unique leather and tanning processes from general manager Jean-Marie Gigante. With a background in chemical engineering, specialising in leather science, the Frenchman has worked in the leather industry for more than 30 years across Europe, Africa and Asia; before moving to the UAE, he was MD for the Hermès tannery in France. He’s also the man who revived Sheikh Zayed’s camel-leather vision and took it to a new level.
What was the motivation for producing biodegradable and eco-friendly leather? The tanning industry has always been seen as polluting. Until 15 years ago, water from tanneries in Europe and the UK was being disposed of without treatment right into the ocean. Throughout my career I’ve always tried to improve environmental performance, either in the tanneries I’ve run or as a consultant in the leather industry. What we’ve achieved at Al Khaznah is the conclusion of all those years of work trying to minimise our impact on the environment.
Can you tell us about tanning? Tanning involves stabilising the protein structure [of the hide] that would otherwise rot. There are many ways of tanning leather. The traditional way is using wood barks and extracts, what we call vegetable tanning. Then we moved into chrome tanning, where the leather is treated with chromium salts – a technique used by 90 percent of the leather industry because it gives the best performance. But when chrome-tanned leather is disposed of, it still contains chromium salts. If it’s incinerated, as it tends to be, the chromium salt turns into a chromium compound that’s extremely toxic and carcinogencic.
So you don’t use chromium in your tanning process? We don’t. We’ve developed a new way of preserving the skins that avoids using chromium salts, yet still allows us to get the same performance and results as traditional chrome-tanned leathers. Many tanneries have been working on this for years because, until now, nothing was up to the standard of the chromium-tanned leathers.
How do you do it? We use only natural products and a secret recipe that I’ve developed over the past decade. The leather technology can be compared to cooking: it involves long recipes and a lengthy transformation process. At Al Khaznah we only use sustainable ingredients. The result is leather that can biodegrade within six months. That’s the real breakthrough. I think we’re the only ones that have developed biodegradable leather that can also meet the highest standards of performance – it can even be used in aircrafts.
Does the treatment process normally cause pollution? It would in a standard operation. But we use only hazard-free chemicals, and all our waste is recycled. We have a water recycling system where the water is used, treated, polished and then injected back into the process. We’ve really demonstrated responsibility and tried to minimise our environmental impact.
Al Khaznah currently provides leather to manufacturers and also produces some leather goods. It mostly works as a wholesaler, supplying in bulk to companies, but can also produce smaller quantities on demand – ideal if you want to invest in unique handbags with a large group of friends. Alternatively, Dubai-based Lebanese-Finnish furniture designer Mira Ghanem uses a variety of materials, including Al Khaznah’s camel leather, to create modern pieces infused with UAE heritage. For more information on Mira Ghanem’s work, or to commission a piece, contact firstname.lastname@example.org (04 347 6158).