“Our Featherweight paper is the same paper that’s used for bank notes. It’s extremely thin but durable enough to be written on without the ink showing through.”
I’m being taken on a personal tour of Smythson’s Hertfordshire bookbinding workshops, where its famous diaries are produced, from printed page to hand-finished leather covers. My guide is pointing out each artisanal technique while I take in the familiar sky blue paper hue that serves as a permanent presence throughout the premises.
This is a busy time for Smythson; it’s peak diary-making season, with the Soho and Panama varieties being the most popular of its many different styles. In an era of Google calendar and Apple Watch notifications, you’d be surprised how many people (this blogger included) still rely on a good old paper diary to keep them up to speed.
But of course, these are not any old diaries. Frank Smythson’s unique journals have been produced since 1887 when he crafted the first portable diaries as an alternative to the formal desk diary. Since then, these have become the most desirable of luxury items, relied upon by such icons as Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Winston Churchill for noting appointments, ambitions and rendezvous.
My workshop visit is timed to coincide with the release of the new midnight blue Mara diary. A handsome indigo version of the popular Soho diary, it boasts croc-stamped leather and silver gilded edges. It’s a generous-sized week-to-view diary whose 50g featherweight paper means it can pack in lots of pages while keeping the diary flexible and light.
Our first stop on the tour sees large sheets of Scottish-milled paper being fed through a huge printing machine. From here they progress to the folding machine, where the sheets are folded into 32 page sections, which all need to be perfectly aligned. This trademark whisper-light paper is so delicate it demands specialist skill to print, watermark and fold it. At Smythson, they refer to it as like “folding mist… because there’s nothing there!”
Once folded, the sections are hand collated for sewing and gluing. (Gluing helps the pages to lie flat – is there anything more annoying than writing in a diary that refuses to lie flat?) I’m intrigued to see two sewing machines on standby. One is a modern machine, while the other is a 1950s model that requires daily oiling. Note the thread in cream and blue, to match the colour of the paper used.
Over in an adjacent workshop, I see the finishing processes in action. The beauty of a Smythson diary is its lightweight pages and binding, which make it super-pliable. Fold it, squish it, roll it up to fit in a pocket and it will stay intact.
Here, I witness ‘spine-nipping’, more gluing, guillotining and gilding. The spine-nipping process pushes the air out of the pages, condensing them to make the spine flatter and easier to work with. Then binding tape is glued to the back of the diaries for extra strength. A guillotine then ‘double nips’ the pages to make the edges super-straight ready to be gilded. The edges also have to be sanded so the foil can adhere properly – for this special edition Mara, it’s silver foil, not gold. In a way, the extreme shine of the gilded edges highlights how perfectly straight they are. (No pressure then).
At the far end of the workshop, assorted leathers are arrayed on shelves ready for selection. The vibe is calm but industrious and I quite like being immersed in this rhythmic, methodical environment, taking in the sounds and smells of artisans at work.
The final step: the diaries are lined in silk and the stamped calf leather covers are glued on by hand. It all looks very easy and efficient. But don’t be fooled – should any diary not be 100% perfect, it doesn’t make it out of the workshops.
Watching the painstaking and time-honoured processes from start to finish certainly reinforces the craft of the brand. Keeping a paper diary is such a thoughtful and tactile experience; it’s satisfying to know that the making of these traditional products is equally special and specialised.
The limited edition midnight blue Mara diary is available from Smythson and Smythson stockists now
Update: you can read my post on keeping a diary on the Smythson Journal now…
For more How It’s Made posts, check out my other workshop and factory visits:
Visiting the Lesage embroidery atelier with Chanel
For more on heritage brands and artisanal luxury, order my book, The New Garconne – How to be a Modern Gentlewoman (published September 2016)
WORDS AND IMAGES: Disneyrollergirl/Navaz Batliwalla
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*THIS POST IS PRODUCED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH SMYTHSON*