Part-time leatherworker, Lucas Coffield, creates sophisticated, small accessories in Palm Beach, Florida
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Ten years ago, Lucas Coffield was studying environmental marine policy at the University of Miami. For fun, and to try something new, he elected to take a course in glassblowing. He happily discovered that putting together materials and tools to handcraft items from hot glass, produced a marvelous therapeutic effect.
“I enjoyed the stress reliever aspect of glassblowing. I missed it when I got out of school,” he recalled. He graduated from the university in 2014, with a major in marine affairs. But it didn’t take him long to find another equally challenging and exciting handicraft — leatherworking.
“I’ve always had a primitive interest in leather as a product,” he reflected. “I enjoyed its longevity. The more you use it, the richer the patina. Leather morphs to your use. If you take a wallet in and out of your back pocket every day, it starts to become particular to you.”
The first leather item that he made in earnest, was a wallet for his older brother, Ryan. “He still has it,” Coffield said. The wallet materialized after he bought a scrap leather bundle from a local Michael’s arts and crafts store. A coupon code that offered a 25 percent discount off store items sweetened the deal.
“I call it my naïve stage. When I look back at the first items I made, they now seem hideous. My family told me they liked them, but the products were rough. Everyone has to start somewhere.”
Those first humble projects soon morphed into a creative growth spurt, a passion stoked by the excitement of sourcing materials. He delved into the kinds of leathers manufactured by different tanneries. He explored the use of various hand tools. He grew inspired by the aesthetic thrill of exotic leathers like lizard and alligator.
In only five years, Coffield, 30, who lives in Palm Beach, Florida, has gone more than just the distance as a part-time leathercrafter. Even as he holds down a full-time day job, the refined design sense and careful skill that he brings to his craft is earning him a small, but select enthusiastic following.
The apartment that he shares with his wife, Stephanie Coffield, was too cramped to accommodate a leather workshop. So, he set up his studio in a used room in a separate location. Although the quality of his leatherwork has evolved way beyond amateur, he regards himself as a hobbyist. “The beautiful thing about doing this as a hobby, is that the sums I make from selling my products enable me to purchase some expensive leather tools, which I normally would not be able to justify.”
Leatherwork has multiple facets, he added. Potentially, a leathercrafter like himself could spend a lot of time in one product area and then move on to another area of leatherwork. But for now, he prefers to stay with small accessories.
“I really enjoy connecting with the people I make items for,” he explained. “But if someone asked me to make cowboy boots, I’d have to say no. Recently, I’ve been talking to a gentleman who runs an ostrich farm. He wants to make jackets from ostrich skin. If I wanted to get into that, it would give me a brand-new naïve experience. It might sound underwhelming but, as a hobbyist, my time is limited.”
What keeps him going is the moment when he hands one of his custom-made creations to someone who is not just a customer but a person he has come to know, who will use his wallet for years to come.
“All my leather goods are bespoke. There is always a bespoke component, whether it is the color of the thread, or color and type of leather to be used. That compensates for the redundancy of making a same kind of product. And, because I define what I do as a hobby, I still have the passion associated with making it. I don’t get to the point where it becomes work.”
Also, he avoids focusing on the number of items made in a given period. “I pretty much always have something in queue, so when I make one product, I reach out to the next person I know is interested.”
The majority of those who inquire about his products are largely “young males and generous wives,” he said. He makes from one to ten items per month, depending upon the project. “Smart people reach out to me well in advance. I have to turn people away if orders get too overwhelming. I don’t have time to keep stock.”
Sales are made primarily by word of mouth. “I enjoy that link of a friend of a friend of a friend. It is definitely a niche.” Also, he finds that folks respond positively to images of his work posted on Instagram.
And, he likes to keep things simple. Currently, he makes slim billfolds (bifolds) and minimalist-style card holders. The latter is his personal favorite. “I’m part of the generation that asks, ‘why carry cash?’ ” Belt making, however, is not his favorite item to make. “Belts are boring,” he quipped.
Recently, he created a billfold made with Italian Gold alligator leather. “Italian Gold is the tannery’s name for that color. It’s more of a golden brown with hints of burgundy,” he explained. Another recent project was a wallet fabricated from crocodile skin that included a high-quality Barenia calfskin interior. Most of his interiors, however, are made of goatskin (chevré). “Goatskin is thin but able to hold its integrity,” he said.
GATERS AND CROCS
Coffield has built a distinctive line, largely by his use of alligator and crocodile leathers. His most popular product is a billfold made of alligator hide. “I primarily work with alligator. I’m excited about the ultra-luxury, hand-assembled alligator niche. I can explain to people what grade their alligator is and how I cut it. I’m able to go in-depth with them.”
Since he was raised in South Florida, in a region where these amazing reptiles abound, it’s easy to see how crocs and gators, creatures evolving on our planet during the age of dinosaurs, have strongly influenced his creative psyche.
What’s more, living in Palm Beach has put a modern, sophisticated spin on his artistry. “Growing up, I was surrounded by luxury items and acknowledged different luxury brands,” he said, of the region famed for its stunning estates, posh resorts and restaurants, white sand beaches, ocean views, upscale shops, art galleries, museums and billionaires.
His leather accessories typically range from $400 to $600 per item. “I’m making a high-end product normally only accessible at ultra-luxury fashion houses, places that sell products like these for thousands of dollars. This level of quality is now accessible to the small group of people who know my work.”
Alligator leather is also very expensive, he pointed out. “There are a series of grades for alligator hide. It’s definitely over $200 for a skin. You have to put a product out that justifies using that skin. I get to source some of the best quality materials in the world.”
Typically, he buys small hides, roughly 28 centimeters (11.0236 inches) in width, measured across the belly. “I use a luxury European-style technique. I hand stitch everything, heat crease and hand paint edges as well. I also cut hides with a Japanese-style leather knife,” he said. “It forced me to learn how to sharpen an edge with a whetstone.”
He sources leather edge paint from Uniters, a U.S.-based company that, coincidentally, has corporate offices in West Palm Beach. The company offers heatable edge paint in 50 colors. His threads are ordered from the manufacturer, Threads of MeiSi. Alligator hides are purchased from American Tanning & Leather, LLC, in Griffin, Georgia. Crocodile skins are sourced from Heng Long Leather Company, a Singapore tannery.
“I’ve been humbled by the craft — knowing you’re never done learning. There’s always a new technique to perfect or the use of a certain tool.”
CURRENT ‘REGS’ ON ALLIGATORS AND CROCODILES
Lucas Coffield runs his small part-time leather workshop/studio in a spare room in Palm Beach, Florida. The primary leather that he uses in his handcrafted assortment of small accessories is alligator skin.
As someone trained in environmental science, Coffield is up on the current regulations and other important data regarding the alligator and crocodile leather industry. “The harvesting of alligator leather is both sustainable and heavily regulated in the U.S.,” he said.
“The international organization CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) deals with the wildlife trade. The population of alligators in the U.S. is extremely healthy. They are not endangered or threatened,” he added.
With crocodiles, however, some subspecies are allowed to be farmed or harvested, and some are not, he explained. The American crocodile is listed in the U.S. as threatened, and therefore is protected.
At one time, American alligator numbers were severely dwindling. “They were hunted close to extinction. But, after the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act hunting was prohibited and their wetland habitat was protected,” he said.
The good news is the American alligator has made a dramatic recovery. Thanks to habitat management and law-enforcement efforts, it was removed from the Endangered Species list in 1987. “It is a conservation success story. It shows you that conservation works,” he noted.
He also pointed out that each alligator hide must come with a CITES tag on its tail. “It is illegal for any tannery to accept an alligator or crocodile hide without a CITES tag,” he said.
Coffield sources alligator leather from an assortment of tanneries. “You want to purchase hides from a company up on rules and regulations of the alligator and crocodile trade. It is extremely important that all of us stay educated about what species are being sustainably harvested,” he advised.
For more information on alligator and crocodile regulations, go to: fws.gov/international/animals/alligators-and-crocodiles.html
GET IN TOUCH
Lucas Coffield Leather
Palm Beach, FL