Targeted marketing and a tan-and-return service are promising game changers for family run, New York tannery
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Tucked into the picturesque Hudson River Valley region in New York state is the small town of Montgomery. Its lush, natural beauty, cultural festivities, historic homes, antique shops and sustainably-raised local food, attract a growing surge of folks seeking to escape Manhattan for a genteel, countryside experience. And, the town is only an hour-and-a-half drive from the Big Apple.
“It’s a hip little place. Lots of people are moving up. Add the pandemic to that, and people want to get the hell out of Dodge,” said Jesse Meyer, 48, owner and general manager of the five-generation, family-run tannery, Pergamena Parchment & Leather, a 72,000-square-foot, two-story facility based in Montgomery.
The tannery was originally named Richard E. Meyer & Sons, in 1856. But the tannery’s long family history stretches back even further — to 1556 and Eisenberg, Germany, where Meyer family ancestors were involved with leatherwork and tanning.
Pergamena, a small but sophisticated tannery, produces custom and ready-made parchment and leather in a broad array of colors, textures and thicknesses for dozens of niche industries. The business fulfills both large-scale and small-batch, carefully handcrafted commissions for accessories, handbags, furniture, interiors and the like.
The company was renamed Pergamena in 2016. “Pergamena is an Italian word that means parchment,” Jesse explained. In large part, the business name change was prompted by his successful introduction of traditional parchment manufacturing.
Jesse launched the unique parchment division in 1999. At the time, he was working with his father, Karl Meyer, who headed up the company for 45 years, until retiring in 2018. The introduction of parchment positioned the tannery as the first U.S. producer of this specialty product in decades.
Today, parchment accounts for 50 percent of tannery sales. Cowhide makes up about 30 percent, and goatskin, calfskin, sheepskin and deerskin the remaining 20 percent. “We do a veg-tan leather process. We don’t do chrome-tanning,” he said.
Most cowhide is sourced locally. “A fair amount of farming goes on in New York State,” he noted. “We get goatskin from the New York area, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey are also high suppliers. Calfskin is purchased from upstate New York or New England.”
Jesse’s role at the tannery is highly versatile and hands-on. “I do a little bit of everything. I do most of the actual beaming (fleshing and de-hairing), pickling and dying of leather. It’s hard to find people who want to do all this. I get in there and do a lot of the wet work.”
His younger brother, Stephen Meyer, 33, is head of operations. Like Jesse, he grew up in the tannery. “I started full time about a decade ago. Over the years, I learned to do everything. My role has developed organically,” he said.
Today, he runs the office, deals with customers and crunches numbers. And, he works with subcontractors who split and finish the leathers. Finishing involves processes like pigmenting, waxing, embossing and the creation of various grain patterns.
Besides the two Meyer brothers, the tannery has three, full-time employees in charge of inventory, shipping, office management and marketing. The company has worked with clients from New York, across the U.S., in states like Florida, California and Idaho, and internationally, in the U.K., France, Malta, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
Parchment is made from raw, untanned goatskin, calfskin, sheepskin or deerskin. Unlike leather, which is tanned through a chemical process, parchment is produced by a method called liming. Hides are soaked in an alkali solution to remove the animal proteins, grease and fat. The wet skins are then stretched on frames and dried. “Producing it can involve labor-intensive, hand work. It involves a lot of scraping and stretching,” Jesse said.
The result is a clean, white, smooth material. “Parchment is thin and flexible and paper-like in appearance, but deceptively strong. It’s sometimes used for drumheads,” he added.
Long associated with bookbinding, medieval manuscripts and diplomas, Jesse saw that the material has many modern and novel uses. “Parchment is used as a surface material for panels, cabinet doors, tabletops, headboards — any sort of flat, hard surface on a piece of furniture. Parchment is considered a luxury material. It can be dyed and made eye-poppingly beautiful,” he said.
Some of his parchment clients do work with rare manuscripts, such as museum-level conservators who repair old documents. But the majority of Pergamena’s parchment goes into interior and furniture designs for upscale hotels, retail firms and residences.
Parchment is sometimes called vellum, which comes from an old French word, velin, for calfskin, he explained. “Historically, calfskin has made some of the finest parchment available, so people have long referred to refined parchment as vellum. All vellum is parchment, but not all parchment is vellum.”
BESPOKE CUSTOM LEATHER
At Pergamena, custom operations are a distinctive aspect of business. “We do a lot of custom projects,” Stephen said. “I help people walk through the process and get all the details lined up. I work closely with leather finishers, who are an ancillary industry, to achieve what the customer wants.
“We’re a self-sustained business,” he continued. “We are a very small tannery compared to the average. There might be other tanneries that can create the things we create. But people are coming to us because we are a bespoke operation.”
However, as most businesses can testify, this year has been unlike any other. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the U.S. and global economy upside down. “It definitely affected our business,” Jesse noted. “We have some hold-over business that predates COVID, which is ongoing. We’re seeing sales from the website and some contract work.”
On the other hand, “the COVID downtime provided the opportunity to look closer at our products and processes and to better understand the markets we need to reach,” Stephen added. This period of introspection resulted in more targeted marketing outreach efforts to attract high-end clientele. So far, the plan of action seems to be working.
“That goal was already a significant part of the business before COVID,” he added. “But our reassessment during the crisis has yielded faster growth with the furniture and interior projects. That segment seems to have bounced back faster than the other industries we work with. Our in-house marketing employee does a lot of social media outreach and assesses those returns, to see what efforts reach the market segments we want to engage right now.”
For example, a Philadelphia client who works with designers, recently called the tannery about a furniture installation and interior applications project.
“They want us to custom print or custom edge leather, for a one-off project,” he said. “I will now be figuring out what they need from us, materials-wise, and how we can create it. I will be the point man, working with finishers to help this client to achieve the patterns and style they want to create.”
A Toronto design company recently got in touch concerning a lighting project for an installation. “They were looking to make lamps with leather shades and to wrap the lamp base with leather,” he explained. “The company was trying to figure out the most cost-effective way to do the project. I walked them through that. I will send them the finished panels, and they’ll stitch the shades and wrap the leather on the lamps.”
TAN AND RETURN
Another ongoing, tannery project that pandemic stress pushed into the foreground is their “tan-and-return service.” It all started on a small scale around 2014, when the company took part in a pilot project that involved a restaurant chain in Brooklyn, New York. In order to cater to a growing number of people eager to consume sustainably-raised, grass-fed beef, the restaurant purchased Black Angus cows and had them sustainably raised by a farm in the Hudson River Valley.
“Our tannery received the cowhides from the farmer, which we then veg-tanned, a process that uses plant extracts and is considered to be less invasive environmentally than chrome-tanned leather,” Jesse said. “We returned these hides to the restaurant owner, who then had them made into handbags and leather goods.”
Currently, Pergamena receives cowhides from White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. “We tan them and send them back to the farmers, who turn them into leather goods. Our transaction with them has been ongoing for two years. The COVID pandemic made the farm even busier. They’re a small-scale beef provider, a self-contained operation. Stephen is the point of contact for the farm.”
For a number of years, they also have tanned cowhide for Gilkison Farm of Winchester, Kentucky. And, Central Grazing Company, a farm in Lawrence, Kansas, is sending the New York tannery hairsheep hides. “They’re well known as a sustainable farming community and produce meat, some wool fiber and a few batches of leather from hairsheep. For the last few years, we’ve done several hundred hides for them,” he said.
Recently, as business slowed in other areas, the tannery has been seeing more activity with its tan-and-return service. The company is now partnering with more Hudson River Valley farms that raise beef and work on creating a local source of sustainably-raised leather as well. “The hides get to us, we do the tanning, and we provide the hides back to them at a reasonable cost. We are selling a service,” he said.
Right now, tan-and-return and traceable food projects make up 30 percent of Pergamena’s production, by volume. Such transactions, he realized, could have different approaches; farmers can choose to make something out of the hides themselves. Or, the tannery can take those hides and partner with a leather goods manufacturer, who in turn, makes products the farmer can sell as retail items.
“We’ve tested this, and it does work. We’re hoping we find more customers interested in this additional service. If we collect more sustainably-raised hides from the Hudson River Valley, we can offer them as an ethically-sourced leather. But we have to figure out how much demand we can absorb to do it profitably. We’re plowing new ground, working it out as we go along.
“What we do know — there’s an increased interest in sustainable and traceable foods and consumer goods, like meat, dairy and textiles. It’s only natural that it extends to other products, such as leather. We know that the interest is there, and we’re heading in the right direction,” he said.
“It always looks promising,” Stephen added. “There are always people interested in working with us and our expertise. Our next step is to broaden our reach and our message.”
“The economic picture is a bit of a roller coaster ride at the moment,” Jesse noted. “But we’ve been here before, and we survived. We’re still here after 400 plus years, and we plan on doing that again.”
LEATHERMAKING — IT’S IN THE MEYER FAMILY’S DNA
Pergamena Parchment & Leather, a tannery that manufactures artisanal parchment and leather, is owned and operated by Jesse Meyer in Montgomery, New York, a town set in the heart of the state’s scenic Hudson River Valley. His younger brother, Stephen Meyer, is head of operations.
The company’s U.S. history can be traced back to five generations of Meyers. But the family’s ancestral roots stretch back to 1556 and to Eisenberg, Germany, where the Meyer family engaged in tanning and leatherwork for generations.
Around 1820, Wilhelm Meyer, the great-great-great grandfather of Jesse and Stephen, emigrated from Germany to Philadelphia, taking his family and expertise in leatherwork and tanning with him.
In 1856, Wilhelm and his son, Richard, the first American-born tanner among members of the Meyer line, moved the business to North Bergen, New Jersey. During that period, Richard incorporated the family business under his own name and dubbed it, Richard E. Meyer & Sons.
The tannery operated in North Bergen for about 125 years. In 1972, Wilhelm’s great-great grandson, Karl Meyer, took charge. In 1981, he relocated the business to the facility that he built in Montgomery. He retired in 2018.
While he ran the business, some of his biggest clients were makers of bowling shoes, shoe soles and also leather for the inner workings of pianos, namely, the premier piano manufacturer, Steinway & Sons, based in Astoria, New York, and Hamburg, Germany. “We did business with them for 150 years. We still fulfill small orders for Steinway,” Jesse Meyer said.
Pergamena Parchment & Leather is one of only three percent of all family businesses operating at the fourth-generation level and beyond, according to the Conway Center for Family Business. The center also notes that the environment for innovation in family business improves, when more generations of the owning family are actively involved in the business.
Pergamena Parchment & Leather
11 Factory Street
Montgomery, NY 12549
Jesse Meyer, general manager
Stephen Meyer, head of operations
Dave Zirilli, general info
Tannery Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Monday – Friday.
Office Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Instagram — @PERGAMENANY
YouTube videos: (Pergamena Parchment & Leather)