Craftsmanship: the ultimate expression of luxury

Take a quick snapshot of what you're wearing or carrying. Consider clothes, the shoes on your feet, the phone in your pocket.

How much derives from a production line? To what items do you feel a tangible, emotional connection?

If the answers are 'everything' and 'nothing', you're not alone. In a mass-produced, highly disposable era we want everything - and can afford to have it – yet genuinely appreciate none of it.

Real craftsmanship, genuine exclusivity and bespoke fit cost more - in most cases many times more than a mass-produced version of the same item. So why bother making it? And why should you pay the extra?

Hard-to-find gems

London's high streets, like most modern metropolises, are jam-packed with mass-marketed consumerism, from the bright lights of Oxford, Regent and Carnaby Streets, and even Bond Street's super-luxury salons.

Peer closer, though, to see the tiny shoe shop in a hard-to-find arcade that sells – arguably - the world's finest men's leather shoes. A few suburbs away in a narrow mews in Kensington there's an unlikely-looking car showroom selling some of the last examples in the world of sports cars constructed completely by hand.

To the north lies a whisky distillery in Scotland's famed Speyside region that is one of the last in the world to floor-malt its own barley, a costly and laborious process that is the cornerstone of a drop noted by enthusiasts as one of the world's finest.

In each of these concerns there's a genuine focus on craftsmanship, a real desire to create something unique that evokes a genuine emotional connection.

Malt of the earth

The Balvenie distillery invited Executive Style to the UK to celebrate one of the most notable whisky releases of recent times, the DCS Series, but also to celebrate the nature of hand-crafted luxury, which continues to undergo a steady revival in fortunes.


The distillery's ambassador, David Mair, says it's a point of pride to retain links to the crafts and trades honed in centuries past. It is one of only five in Scotland – and possibly in the world – to retain the time-honoured processing of barley by hand. It also maintains an active cooperage that repairs and reconditions the thousands of oak casks that form such a central part of the whisky ageing process.

"We could farm it all out externally. We do it because we can," he says.

"We're very much keen to preserve the tender loving care that this distillery deserves. It's holding onto tradition so we don't lose it. We do it not because we have to, but because we want to preserve craftsmanship."

Well heeled

It's an attitude echoed by men's shoemaker G.J. Cleverley & Co. From a tiny workshop above an equally compact showroom in a narrow London arcade, it aims to fulfil the fastidious needs of its well-heeled clientele with leather shoes of uncompromised quality.

Such attention to detail doesn't come cheap. Its bespoke shoes start from ₤3300 ($6987) for 'basic' calfskin leather, and rise to ₤5550 ($11,757) if you want crocodile or stingray skin.

For that price, the Cleverley team will measure your foot in millimetric detail and create an exact wooden replica of your foot – called a last – and then build your shoe around it. Based on a welt, a thick piece of leather that forms the shoe's chassis, the shoe can be built to an exacting specification and - like a car's chassis - the panels can be replaced or updated over time.

While we are in the shop, a customer arrives with several pairs of shoes requiring minor cosmetic and restoration work, The store attendant shows me a pair of black brogues and tells me they are older than he is.

Cleverley shoes are methodically fettled in the upstairs workshop, or at the homes of around 30 highly trained craftspeople around the country who have all learned the fastidious art at Cleverley's Royal Arcade headquarters.

It can take three months – sometimes more – from first consultation to delivery to the customer. The timeframe doesn't seem to deter clients. A storeroom contains the lasts of thousands of current and former clients including David Beckham, Sylvester Stallone, Daniel Day Lewis, Samuel L. Jackson, and The Prince of Wales.

"When Cleverley creates a Cleverley shoe, I don't think there's any shoemaker who can beat that," says retail manager Pierre Balesi. "The style, the comfort, the shape … and making the shoe comfortable, but very light. So it's an English shoe, but not heavy, and that what's unique about Cleverley.

"You had (rival shoemaker) John Lobb, which was very round, very bulky, very heavy, good for the English weather but to wear … it was a different comfort.

"George Cleverley came in and said 'I can make you a good-looking pair, but they will also be comfortable, light and soft'. So I still think we're well on top of our game."

Precious metal

Hand-crafted luxury harking back to a bygone era also rules at Morgan Motors, an English carmaker dedicated to hand-building an extremely limited number of low-slung, 1960s-era sports cars.

Starting with a steel chassis, craftsmen add a timber framework that is bent to shape using decades-old jigs, before adding hand-beaten panels. Hand-stitched leather seats complete the package. Only 1000 are made every year taking 7-8 months each, and no two Morgans are exactly alike.

Even more bespoke than most is a one-off car designed by Morgan for Balvenie, featuring a radically altered roofline and numerous one-off features. It is driven on a daily basis by James Buntin, Balvenie's London-based ambassador.

"It's a really great connection between Morgan and Balvenie, both us being the last of some great family-owned companies. It's the craftsmanship in this car that means something," he says.

"When you drive a Morgan it's a totally different experience. The fact I know the people who put love and care into means I'm a bit more precious than I would be if it came off a production line. This car took a long time to build and there's a lot of pride in that, so you have to protect that."

Doing it by hand

At Balvenie, outside Dufftown in Scotland, tradition is worn like a badge of honour by all of the distillery's staff. Some processes have been modernised to make the workplace safer and to keep production costs under control, but examples of craftsmanship can still be seen in the giant malting barn where barley is spread over the floor and prepared by hand to become the basis for the brand's feted drop.

At the other end of the site, oak casks stacked five and six high surround the cooperage, having already disgorged their precious contents. Each is to be given a mid-life makeover, receiving the care and attention deserving of the most crucial component of the all-important maturation process.

Balvenie is one of the few distilleries left in Scotland to still apply such labour-intensive techniques to whisky production that have passed from one generation to the next, says Dr Sam Simmons, the brand's global ambassador.

"Once you get to know the people, and see them maybe doing the same job their parents had, and that they learned from a master or were an apprentice to somebody, you realise the knowledge here isn't learned in books. It's learned from experience," he says.

"Yes, there's science (in whisky production), and that comes from books, but without experience there's no craft. All those things together you feel when you come here to the distillery."

Quality in a cask

Master distiller David Stewart takes pride in supporting traditional processes. "We're a family company and that enables us to maintain these crafts, and it does contribute to the quality of Balvenie," he says.

"It's very important that we can maintain our own casks, because I know how important casks are to our company. To have our own coopers who have so much experience is important, because that's really the key to the quality of the whisky."

Craftsmanship brings the promise of greater care and personalisation in the production process. It also results in higher prices and greater scarcity.

In other words, exactly what true luxury should be about.

Steve Colquhoun travelled to London and Scotland as a guest of William Grant and Sons.