Located in picturesque surroundings among castles and vineyards in the Cognac-producing region in South West France, some 20 kilometers south of the city of Angoulême in the commune of Magnac-Lavalette-Villars, is the office and factory of Avel - home of the well-known Saphir shoe care brand. We decided to pay them a visit to see how some of the world's finest shoe care products are made.
As we arrived at the factory parking lot, just after getting a view of the magnificent Château de la Mercerie from the narrow country road, we were met by the pleasant and familiar scent of Avel’s shoe care products. Saphir, Saphir Medaille d’Or, La Cordonnerie Anglaise and Avel branded products are all made here. We were warmly greeted by Frédéric Emier of the export department, and later kindly shown around the factory by sales manager Gael Birot.
Château de la Mercerie as seen from the road
The location of the factory is part of the Fins Bois Cognac-producing region
Road sign pointing to Avel and the neighbouring distributor Valmour
Avel Sales Manager Gael Birot
The Avel company was founded near Paris in 1977 by Alexandre Moura, and moved to the current location in 1987 after the Moura family fell in love with it while vacationing in the area. Avel has a yearly turnover of 12.700.000 € and has 34 employees. It is part of the larger Alma group, which recently acquired Dunkelman & Son (producers of Dasco shoe care products in England), Perfecta (a French shoe tree manufacturer) in 2014 as well as the Barcelona-based Tarrago in 2008.
Factory entrance door
Inauguration plate from 1987
Avel acquired Saphir in 1977, but the Saphir brand is actually one of the oldest shoe care brands still in existence. It was founded in 1920, and received a gold medal at the Paris expo in 1925 – which explains the name of Saphir’s top quality product line, Saphir Médaille d’Or 1925. Saphir products are used by quality shoemakers, cobblers and shoe enthusiasts in at least 75 countries, and are known as some of the world’s best – entirely free of harmful silicones and resins, using mainly natural ingredients.
Top line Saphir Médaille d'Or Wax Polishes
The building itself is an impressive 7500 square metres of offices, showroom, production and packaging facilities, laboratory and warehouses, and there are plans to further expand it with a new 5500 square metre section. It houses more than 3300 different product references, all made here, and Avel has chosen to keep plenty of stock to be able to quickly deliver to customers worldwide. Products spend a maximum of six months in the warehouse before being shipped, and generally have a shelf life of at least ten years.
Some of the brands under the Alma umbrella: Tarrago is made in Spain and Dasco in England, but Saphir and La Cordonnerie Anglaise are made by Avel in France
Shoe trees made by Perfecta for Avel
La Cordonnerie Anglaise apron and brushes at the showroom
A selection of Saphir Médaille d'Or 1925 products
Solvents, beeswax and other waxes and oils (carnauba wax, shea butter, lanolin, mink oil and others depending on product), pigments and other ingredients are measured and combined according to a recipe, then added to a hot tumbling barrel that Gael calls the reactor. Avel’s products are mainly solvent based, and to mask the smell of the solvent, a bitter almond perfume is added into the mix.
Solvent has the function of both cleaning and caring for the leather, as well as keeping the creams and polishes supple and easier to work with. It opens the pores of the leather, which lets the wax enter the pores and go deeper into the leather. This makes polishing your shoes easier in the long run. One characteristic that sets the Saphir Médaille d’Or product line apart, except for a higher concentration of pigments and natural oils and waxes, is that it uses turpentine, a distilled product from live pine trees, while other products use petroleum based solvents.
Beeswax cake for use in shoe creams and wax polishes - has a distinctive but pleasant smell
Beeswax and other waxes, soon to be melted and mixed in the reactor
Avel currently has a selection of 84 different colours of their creams and waxes, all created by mixing varying amounts of 20 different base pigments. After the finished product is created by mixing in the reactor, it is transferred to the filling room which has separate machines for the every type of packaging: glass jars, metal tins, tubes, bottles and so on. Generally, Avel does not allow visitors to take photos of production as a means of guarding their unique processes, but we still managed to get a few shots from inside (with Gael’s permission, of course).
Avel's best selling product in the making: Saphir Beauté du Cuir Crème Surfine, with more than one million jars sold every year
Chilled into a solid state, from 70 degrees celsius to -20 in 30 minutes - now ready for lid application
A finished batch of Crème Surfine at the warehouse
Tubes are round to begin with, then filled and flattened in the ends
A snapshot from the well-stocked warehouse
New products and colourways are constantly being developed at the laboratory, with the latest addition being a leather sole oil. When a new product has been designed, it has to pass a series of tests during three to nine months to make sure that it is stable and works in all conditions. They are often sent to reference customers who test the products and collect feedback.
About 55 percent of all sales is made up by the export market, and that figure is expected to rise to 60 percent next year. Russia, Japan and Holland are the top three countries for export, with China on the rise and great markets in Italy, Switzerland, Sweden and Belgium as well.
Avel is doing great in no small part thanks to fantastic products and a job well done, but also because the overall global trend towards quality in footwear combined with the rise of social media has brought increased exposure and sales. Of course, when paying a premium for quality shoes, it doesn’t make sense to skimp on shoe care.
Many thanks to Avel for the invitation and hospitality!