Lost in the middle of oyster farming territory, on the harbor of La Teste-de-Buch and off the Arcachon Bay, Marielle Philip is tanning fish skins to turn them into leather. Her workshop is set up inside one of those little wooden cabins right by the water—a few feet away from the food stalls where tourists regularly show up to gorge themselves on oyster platters.
Inside Femer, her small leatherworking shop, each object fits the nautical theme: yellow raincoats hanging on a rack, an old machine that fillets fish, a few watercolors of boats, and her grandfather's fishing nets. In a corner, two big freezers stock the different fish, whose skins will soon become leather: bass, salmon, soles, trout, turbots, burbots, sturgeons, catfish, rays, mullets…The list is long—if it swims, it ends up on Marielle's workstation.
The art of fashioning leather out of fish skin wasn't invented yesterday. The artisanal craft has been practiced across the ages and across the globe: Native Americans used it to make garments and jewelry; in Japan, it was used to customize the handles of katana swords. In 18th century France, it was fairly common to come across objects made of Galuchat, a type of cartilaginous fish leather named after Jean-Claude Galluchat, the artisan who invented its tanning process. Fish leather tanning has long since been lost to industrial techniques with higher yields, but in it, Marielle sees an opportunity to revive an ancestral craft.
A native of the bay, Marielle grew up at sea, accompanying her grandfather on fishing trips and helping with morning auctions. Around the time she completed her studies in environmental law and coastal management, her mother returned from a trip to Lapland, where she had discovered fish leather and how to make it: "That's where my mother found out about the process of tanning fish skin. She wanted to train over there, but the species are not the same—the tannins are different, as are the climate conditions," recalls Marielle. "She came back with a method that was incompatible with our fish, so we thought we should set something up."
Marielle and her mother decided then and there that they would start their own leatherworking shop, naming it Femer. Together, they developed an eco-responsible method that allows them to fabricate fish leather through a circular economy. For nearly two years, Marielle put on her chemist hat and concocted various vegetable tannin recipes, eventually arriving at a process that is 100-percent natural, with zero waste.
Tannin is the substance that is added in order to transform the skin into leather, rendering it supple and insoluble, and preventing it from rotting. Currently, industry professionals use mineral salts as tannin, such as chromium salts—chemical products that mix easily with other substances, and thus cut production times way down. Marielle opted for a more natural alternative, out of environmental concerns: "I use local invasive plants, such as crushed mimosa root bark, which is found all over the Aquitaine region," she explains. "I am always working on new vegetable tannin formulas. Choosing this process means that we are looking to remain as natural as possible, and obtain quality leather," confesses Marielle, careful not to reveal too much of her secret recipes.
In all of France, only four tanneries incorporate vegetable tannin in their animal leather fabrication process, and to date, Marielle is alone in resorting to this natural method to make fish leather. "Even if the process for making beef leather isn't so different from salmon, it feels more natural to me to handle and scale fish skins," she comments.
At the Femer leatherworking shop, making fish leather takes two to three weeks.
The first step consists of obtaining raw skins, and on that front, the area is fully stocked. Marielle goes to local producers: wholesalers, fish farmers, fishermen and fishmongers. While some systematically throw out their organic waste, others have gotten into the habit of setting aside the skins and offering them to Marielle: "I take what they consider waste and give the fish a second life," explains Marielle. "Making fish leather can be time-consuming, and can quickly become expensive if you don't think things through. I want to spread awareness of zero waste practices, and eventually pay them for the skins. For now—knock on wood—many fishermen give them to me."
Secondly, Marielle scales the skin, removing any flesh residue, and rinses it. "I put aside the scales and give them to jewelry designers, art schools or pre-K teachers. The extra flesh is reused as fishing bait, mostly for crab fishing," she adds. The following day is dedicated to the tanning process: She soaks the skins, progressively working in the crushed mimosa root bark. Any leftovers from the tanning mixture are composted. After soaking, the skin is finally ready to take a dye bath, where it is customized according to the product and the client's wishes. At the end of the production line, the skin is flattened and left to dry for a period of 8 to 15 days (this varies depending on the species), and out comes a finished product.
When she isn't in her workshop scaling fish, Marielle spends most of her time at her desk at Darwin, a large co-working space in Bordeaux, where she works on the conception and development of fish leather-based products. Marielle's leather has endless applications, from purses, bracelets, necklaces and jewelry to keychains, belts, dresses, and shoes. Recently, the Someone shoe brand used her trout leather in some of its models, and PasKap, a company based in the Landes department, used it to make baby slippers. In the long run, Marielle would like to collaborate with others and develop her own product line. She also hopes to see her leather incorporated at every level of the nautical industry, whether it's boat linings, luxury yacht interiors, even fishing rods.
"When some brands see fish leather, they are very hesitant to try it. But I know my material well. I know what some of these leathers feel like after treatment, and they are worth a close look," asserts Marielle, before heading off to fish for more prospects.
This article originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR in February 2016.