mill handmade – custom Japanese Wallet review, part 1.

You may have noticed a couple of crafts by mill handmade – a one man Aussie leather workshop focused on finely crafted custom leather carries – have been reviewed on this blog over the past 6 months. Rocky, the man behind the brand, has an interest in leathers made the traditional way and a penchant for streamlined & minimalist interpretations of old-school, work-wear style wallets.

If you would like to see the earlier reviews and perhaps read a little bit more about mill handmade, they are available through the Reviews tab in this blog’s menu.

Onto the piece that I wanted to show you today! This wallet is a customised version of mill handmade’s Japanese Wallet, which is currently Rocky’s most complex wallet pattern available.

The lay-out, types of leather and stitch configuration have all been selected by Rocky himself, as a showcase of the ethos & customisation potential of this wallet.

Design

This is the Japanese Wallet in the ‘traditional’ configuration, which refers to the inclusion of a zipped compartment. A ‘minimalist’ version is also available without the zipper, as is a left-handed version.

Leather aficionados should recognise that this bifold wallet is based on the Japanese style of rider’s wallets, or more specifically the iconic HR-01 by Red Moon. Rocky has taken the general idea of a rider’s wallet and streamlined the dimensions and layout.

When folded, this wallet measures 9.4 cm wide x 10.4 cm tall. When fully opened, the width increases to 19.7 cm, accounting for the curvature at the fold. These dimensions are not too dissimilar to the HR-01 ver. 2, and will fit into the back or front pockets of your jeans without jutting out.

The internal lay-out is a modified version of the HR-01.

There are three storage compartments in total – one on the right and two on the left. The notes compartment has been created by the space between the outshell and inner panels.

The quick access card compartment on the right is made with 3 pieces of leather, the extra panel sitting atop the bottom layer being used as decorative accent.

The quick access slot is inward facing and is designed to facilitate quick removal and insertion of frequently used cards. It is more user friendly compared with the card compartments which have featured on various HR-01 designs in the past.

The left side of the wallet features two compartments – a zippered coin pouch and a card storage slot.

The coin pouch allows for secure storage of a handful of coins, with the zipper oriented to open when pulled upwards. It has been cleverly created with one piece of Buttero leather.

The storage compartment opens widely and is deeper than the quick access compartment, giving greater capacity for the storage of cards, receipts and papers.

The notes compartment accommodates well the Australian currency that I carry. Access to notes is easy as the inner panel has been cut moderately deeply, allowing the space to open fairly wide.

Based on the measurements, it is clear that this wallet has been trimmed down compared with most rider’s wallets from Japan. In reality, this Japanese Wallet is easier to handle and sits more comfortably in the back-pocket as a result of the modifications to the leather thicknesses and panel dimensions.

This wallet is fairly manageable in the back pocket, measuring only 13 mm in thickness when compressed and up to twice this thickness when loaded with coins, cash and cards. Although still thicker than the calf skin bifolds you’d find at the local mall, this Japanese Wallet is, by design, lighter and thinner compared with the original rider’s wallets made by Red Moon / Pailot River which measure around 22 mm thick when empty.

Overall, the ideas and ethos behind the rider’s design remains the same, but the pattern has been modernised and the Japanese Wallet is more functional for folks who frequently use their bank cards, compared with older iterations by Japanese makers.

Leather

Impressively, this wallet manages to showcase three different leathers without becoming incoherent. Let’s take a look at each one in more detail!

Shonan Leathers is a small tannery in Himeji, Japan. Sandwiched between the local tourist attraction Kofujiyama and the Sanyo shinkansen line, Shonan is a relatively small and low-tech tannery, being one of the few tanneries in the entire world that continues to pit-tan their hides. It was incorporated over 70 years ago as an amalgamation of several smaller tanning operations.

Shonan – although not as famous as their neighbour Shinki or the much larger Tochigi Leathers – manufactures one of the very best natural vegetable tanned leathers. Top grade raw hides are imported from the USA, and tanned using wooden equipment in African Mimosa tannin pits for approximately 2 to 3 months. The saddle leathers thus produced could then be drum dyed (either black or brown) and even glazed – the result is a small catalogue of Mimosa tanned leathers available in three colours and a couple of different finishes.

Relatively unknown among Western hobbysists, Shonan’s natural saddle leather is highly regarded in East Asia and favoured by many Japanese craftsmen. In fact, per side, Shonan’s leathers are more expensive than J & FJ Baker’s oak bark tanned leathers and even B-grade leather from Shonan sell at higher prices compared with, say, many North American and European veg tanned leathers. Such is Shonan’s quality and reputation for graceful aging, many Japanese craftsmen use only Shonan leather despite the high cost.

The Shonan leather featured on the out-shell of this wallet is their glazed natural saddle leather at 1.3 mm thickness. This leather has a colour that is very pale indeed, and a strong scent of fish oil. In handling the leather, it is more supple – “bouncy” almost – than the colour would suggest. The grain is raw but not dry.

The leather itself does show slight marks and imperfections right from the get go, attesting to the relatively unfinished nature of this leather. The grain structure itself is dense but not overly compressed, with a nice depth to its appearance under natural light.

In terms of hand-feel, in comparison with the more common American and Italian vegetable tanned leathers, the grain on this Shonan pit-tanned saddle leather is much more textured and organic. There is a gentle friction that is further enhanced by oiling the leather, which I find very peculiar.

Also making a cameo appearance is Shonan’s brown glazed pit-tanned leather, out of which the zipper pull-tag has been made. A very textured and deep coloured leather indeed!

I am very excited to see how the Shonan leathers will age over the next few weeks! I have heard it is one of the most responsive leathers being produced today, and I will explore this a little more in Part 2 of this review, in a few days.

The inside panels of this wallet utilises Conceria Walpier’s famous Buttero leather at 1.0 mm thickness, a leather which has become popular with many leather crafters over the past couple of years. Having been a family operation for more than 40 years, Conceria Walpier is now part of the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium, a group of two dozen Tuscan tanneries which specialise in traditional tanning methods. Badalassi Carlo, whose Minerva leather was recently featured in the Rolling Dub Trio review, belongs to this same consortium.

Buttero leather is accomplished in different ways than Shonan’s saddle leather, the Buttero being a more processed / finished leather. Buttero is drum tanned and heat finished, available in many colours, and preferred for its relative durability among vegetable tanned leathers & the slightly more rigid temper – it is a popular choice for high-end custom wallets.

This is my first experience with the natural version of Buttero leather, but if my experience with coloured versions of Buttero is anything to go by, it should be an easier leather to keep clean compared with other veg tanned leathers when used as panels on the inside of a wallet, where dirt and grime have a tendency to accumulate.

This natural Buttero has a firmer temper, denser grain and slightly higher sheen compared to less finished veg tanned leathers; it feels very solid in the hand. I am not sure what type of heat treatment the leather has undergone, but the surface appears glazed and is quite slippery. The smell is dissimilar to the Shonan leather, the Buttero having a sweeter, creamier scent. Generally speaking, Buttero is prized by craftsmen for how easy it is to work with and its grain consistency & depth of colour. I’m very curious to see how this natural Buttero will wear and age – I suspect the colour will develop along a slightly different path compared with the Shonan saddle leather used for the outshell.

Chevre goatskin at 1.2 mm thickness from the French tannery Alran has been used for pocket accent. Alran’s goatskin has been renowned for its durability and depth of texture & colour for over 100 years, being frequently used on hand-bags and other accessories by fashion houses such as Hermes. Chevre is being increasingly used by private label craftsmen for small carry goods such as wallets and watchstraps.

This particular goatskin is Alran’s Chevre ‘Sully’, a combination (chrome + veg) tanned leather that has a very durable and textured grain, with a slightly spongey hand. Chevre goatskin certainly makes for interesting contrast with the Buttero natural cattlehide.

Construction

The first aspect I examined when looking this wallet over was the edge burnishing and the matching of the panels.

One of the unusual aspects of a rider’s style wallet is the number of edges and panels relative to its small size, and hence the finishing of edges and the precision with which the panels are put together are testament to the skills and effort the craftsman has invested into a particular piece.

As you can see in the photos here, on this Japanese Wallet, all the edges have been slightly beveled and smoothly burnished with beeswax. The panels match each other accurately, all the edges being neatly aligned.

The only area where the edge finishing is slightly less polished is the hole at the bottom of the inner spine/ridge.

The zipper is nicely installed through hand-stitching, the YKK zip tucked away so that even when the wallet is compressed, the zipper won’t scratch the leathers and can’t be felt in the back-pocket.

The pull tag of the zipper is neatly made despite its small size. The zip is sturdy and works well, but is a little stiff to pull at first.

The saddle stitching on this Japanese Wallet is impressive. Unlike the Pailot River rider’s wallet reviewed a few months ago which is machine stitched, Rocky has spent considerable time hand-stitching the entire wallet!

Even though this wallet is not too much bigger than a bifold, the sheer number of panels and compartment attachments means that there is a lot of fiddly stitch work involved, some of it hidden inside the compartments too.

However, precisely because of the small and compartmentalized nature of this Japanese Wallet, any untidy stitching will be very noticeable.

I am glad to say that Rocky’s saddle stitch on this wallet is fairly neat. The ecru waxed linen threads sit nicely on both the Shonan and Buttero leathers.

There are a couple of irregularities here and there in terms of the overall flow of the stitches and their alignment with the edges (you can see it in the photos here if you look closely), though the errors are relatively small.

The individual stitches are nicely spaced and very regular.

Semi-circular holes have been punched into the edges of the notes compartment to prevent crinkling of the leather. This is a smart feature which is also present on HR-01 version 2 wallets by Pailot River.

Considering how this wallet has been put together on a whole, I’d say the execution is at least above average in comparison with hand-made pieces of similar complexity. The gold embossing on the Chevre accent was a very nice addition too, something I have not seen on other rider’s wallets.

Opinion

Overall, I would say this Japanese Wallet by Rocky at mill handmade is not only considerately patterned but also nicely put together.

Even though the design is based on the HR-01, the modifications and updates Rocky has included in this first iteration of the Japanese wallet are quite thoughtful and visually appealing, resulting in this rider’s style wallet being more modern in appearance and much more user friendly for people from cultures which rely on cards rather than cash for everyday transactions.

Rocky’s design also feature slightly thinner leathers to minimize bulk, and as a result the Japanese Wallet should be much more beginner friendly too. I’m fairly used to wearing 4 cm thick long-wallets, so I sometimes forget even a work-wear style bifold can be challenging for the uninitiated. Don’t get me wrong, the Japanese Wallet is still considerably rugged, though it is much more manageable compared with the more traditional Japanese styles of the rider’s wallet.

The leathers used here are very interesting indeed, being some of the rarest in this hobby. Shonan Leather’s glazed Mimosa pit-tanned leather in particular is an absolute treasure which I have wanted to try for some time now, ranking very close to Baker’s oak bark pit-tanned leather in terms of the slow-made and very natural methods of tanning, resulting in leathers that are as close to ‘natural’ as possible. The Buttero and Chevre are more processed but their qualities are fantastic too, being some of Europe’s finest leathers; the Buttero in particular is a much better leather compared with many of the unnamed or generic “Italian veg tanned” leathers I’ve come across in the past decade.

In terms of craftsmanship, the level of detailing and effort invested in this wallet obviously surpass that of production-line or machine-made wallets. This wallet was neatly hand-stitched & burnished, with no glaring defects.

Given that this wallet is named the Japanese Wallet, I take it that Rocky is not only paying homage to the Japanese masters and high-end workshops who sit at the very top of work-wear style leather-crafting, but also that he intends for mill handmade to compete at the same levels of craftsmanship.

Keeping this in mind, I have raised my own expectations and standards of critique in this review to that of, for a lack of a better description, Japanese standards of wallet crafting. Bar some minor deviations in stitch alignment and a center ridge cut-out that could perhaps be further refined, this Japanese Wallet rates well under strict considerations, a testament to the effort Rocky had invested into the designing and making of this wallet.

At AUD $430 (or AUD 415 without gold embossing, AUD $390 without zipper), this hand-stitched Japanese Wallet is very well priced. In fact, the pricing is the same as Pailot River’s rider’s wallets, which are machine-stitched…the decision between the two comes down to Red Moon’s heritage & brand versus the extra time & effort Rocky spends in piecing together this cleverly designed wallet. As far as private label custom wallets go, Rocky’s Japanese Wallet is good value indeed.

Futhermore, Rocky has in stock some of the most curious and interesting leathers, such as the Shonan and Buttero featured here, which will delight the leather geeks among us. You could easily have the outshell of this wallet made with green shell cordovan, or have the inner panels stitched with contrast threading. Such is the advantage of having custom work done: your wallet can be made exactly to your liking with textures and colours that interest you.

All in all, this mill handmade Japanese Wallet is a great option for people who are looking for a high-end, custom handcrafted wallet with ample storage space. I am very happy to see work of this caliber being made in Australia!

Please look forward to Part 2 of this review, where I will share with you some photos & thoughts after I have oiled & tanned this wallet and used it for a couple of days. In the mean time, have a look at Rocky’s freshly minted website at mill handmade.

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