Continued from "Geoffrey - his early life"................
In 1958, after the chickens were moved out of the "chicken hut", Geoffrey and Betty, working side by side, started to produce a range of leather-bound books, from classics to stationery – most of them pocket size (remembering his practical requirements of his “gas” days). From “Beefeaters” to Ocean liner’s “flags”, the books were lovingly hand painted and sold to tourist gift shops, museums, great cruise companies such as P & O and Cunard, to exclusive boutiques and designer labels. One such was Alfred Dunhill, who’s grandson, Richard Dunhill (current Life President of this World famous luxury brand), approached Geoffrey and asked him to make a chessboard – he tried and found that the ancient skill of inlaying leather was a particular craft which came easily to him and his growing team of craftsmen, and the rest, as they say, is “history”………………
Geoffrey in the workshop, circa 1977
From that first Chessboard, Backgammon was the next obvious game where precise inlaying was de rigueur. By the early Seventies, the Company had already established itself as No.1 in The World for luxury board games, this culminated for Chess in Geoffrey being commissioned to make the leather boxes and chessboards for the famous Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer’s 1972 World Championship battle in Reykjavik, Iceland.
While for Backgammon, the Company’s expertise was required for what is widely recognized as the first World Backgammon Championship, sponsored by Rothman in 1974 and taking place on the fabulous QEII which sailed for a week between Southampton and New York with the world’s best players in fierce contest.
During this time, the Backgammon “boom” demanded “Geoffrey Parker” boards by the hundreds and his group of craftsmen and women expanded to a team of 25, each being trained “in house” to Geoffrey’s exacting standards.
To ensure he stayed ahead of the “game”, Geoffrey sought out at this time; the World’s most formidable Backgammon champion, Paul Magriel, to ensure that his boards matched professional requirements – together, Geoffrey’s famous weighted leather Backgammon stone (or checker) was created – unlike no other this unique and essential accessory, encompasses all that is at the core of The Company’s persona; precision, skill, craft and dedication to create a perfected balanced playing piece of leather artistry, utilizing the ancient skill of fine edging, burnishing and papier mâché and then to repeat this 30 times per set!
Almost every luxury retailer of note, commissioned The Company to create specialist game ranges, including Asprey, Dunhill, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Garrard, Simpson’s, Smythson, Cartier, Fred, etc. Even a “blind” backgammon was made for famous American singer, Stevie Wonder.
A section of the playing field for Stevie Wonder which included leather binding of bamboo strips to facilitate alignment of the stones/checkers on the board during play.
In 1977, Geoffrey’s son, Max joined the Company full-time, after many a school holiday being spent “helping” in the now expanded workshops.
With the midget classic books still an important part of the Company, Max and Geoffrey traveled to the United States to attend the American Booksellers Convention where their presence amongst the more mainstream publishers caused something of a “stir”. Numerous small bookshops, to giants of the trade and famous museums and libraries, bought book collections and even to this day, collectors seek us out to fill that missing volume.
Our Midget Classic collection grew into address and birthday books and journals for all manner of subjects.
Through the early Eighties, visits to the States continued with the games and books featuring in famous department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Bergdorf Goodman amongst others. A stunning centre piece to Neiman Marcus’ premier Dallas store was Geoffrey’s Design Council award winning solid Sterling silver-gilt chess set, made for the HM The Queen’s Silver Jubilee – still available today retailing back then for $20,000!
Trips were then made to the Far East, taking in Hong Kong and Singapore where the Company’s skills were sought by luxury hotels, where Geoffrey Parker’s work was employed to create specialist menu, wine list and VIP gift giving requirements for such hotel luminaries as The Mandarin Hong Kong, the Intercontinental group, and famous clubs such as the Singapore Polo Club and The Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. In the US, the Willard Hotel in Washington DC and Le Grenouille restaurant in New York added to this side of the Company's activities as did such well-known names in London’s Mayfair of The Connaught, Grosvenor House Hotel and The White Elephant Club and Monaco's Hotel de Paris Louis XV restaurant.
Alain Ducasse's Louis XV restaurant menu and wine list covers, Hôtel de Paris, Monaco
Towards the end of the Eighties, a concerted effort was made to offer our work to the corporate sector – commercial giants such as BP, Motorola, Condé Nast and many others commissioned the Company to make specialist items for chairman to chairman gift-giving and or for company incentives. Ranges were also created for famous car marques such as Aston Martin Lagonda and Jaguar motors.
1977 Signing ceremony at No 10 Downing Street with then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, between BP and Russia's Sidanco Corporation using the folders we custom made for the event.
It was during this time that Max gave the Company its first taste of retail, by opening a Geoffrey Parker store within the world famous “Golden Triangle” of luxury shopping in Beverly Hills. This gave the Company the invaluable inside knowledge gleaned from its customers, of what THEY actually wanted, not what stores wanted to sell them.
Many new items were subsequently introduced, none less important than the introduction of our first licensed game, Scrabble®.
During this period our bespoke service was gainfully employed on a number of important projects; from making a facsimile of George Washington’s campaign briefcase for the venerable Smithsonian Institute in DC, a casket for the regalia of an ancient London Livery Company, The Royal Vintners Company to replace the previous one which lasted 350 years; to two giant library tables covered in 8 full cow hides for the Royal Academy to a special photograph album for Her Majesty The Queen, celebrating the moment when The Mall was filled with golden Daffodils on her Golden Wedding Anniversary.
The special casket made to house the Regalia of the Royal Vintners Company
London’s famous gaming houses sought their “soft gaming” requirements from Geoffrey Parker as well as their VIP/high roller gift giving needs. These great casino clubs included the world’s oldest gaming club Crockfords plus The Ritz, Aspinalls, Les Ambassadeurs and many others.
Geoffrey Parker Backgammon providing the "soft gaming" at Aspinalls gaming club, London
By now Geoffrey had passed the reins over to Max for the day to day running, whilst still bringing his considerable design knowledge to new projects that Max was introducing, due to Geoffrey’s “retirement” Max decided to close the Beverly Hills store, so as to concentrate on the core manufacturing business.
At this time new items were introduced such as a luxury version of the eastern game of Mah Jong, with playing pieces sourced in the deepest Orient. Iconic family board games; Monopoly® and Trivial Pursuit® were added to our luxury gaming licenses.
Dr. Aldo Gucci commissioned the Company to produce a range of games for his famous luxury design house – something of a coup for a non-Italian producer. Tiffany turned to us for a range of travel games, as did the most luxurious modes of travel, the celebrated Venice Simplon Orient Express train.
Many other special commissions have followed, such as a few years ago when the Company produced the World’s most expensive Monopoly®, encrusted in jewels, bound in exotic Alligator and inlaid in precious metals and a special solid gold and Diamond Backgammon for a private jet.
Recently Cluedo® (Clue® in the U.S.) has been added to our traditional game range. Even giant carpet dominoes and inlaid leather Frisbee® have added to an already amazing range of products.
Super and giga-yacht owners seek Geoffrey Parker’s expertise to create games for their luxurious salons with our award winning 25 Game Cube a particular favourite. Alpine ski chalets look for items to amuse the Après-ski crowd. Formula One™ and its teams ordered items made in super-car leathers as did former World Champion, Michael Schumacher when seeking to send Christmas presents to his personal and business contacts.
Max, with the first edition of his award-winning Game Cube design in 2002 (courtesy of Tatler)
Collections of these wonderful pieces have been combined to create compendia, par excellence – our 12 game, “Ultimate Game Table” and 33 Contemporary Game Table; illustrate that we do not compromise on compendia as so often found in so many other lesser collections available. Currently under construction is a giant Casino Games Compendium bringing the luxury of the Salôn Privé to the home.
Geoffrey sadly passed away in December 2000, but his ethos, perfectionism and demand that each product be both elegant and excellent is instilled in each member of the Company who will not waiver from these core values. It is hoped that we may continue to find customers who appreciate the same in a World so full these days of mass produced “throw away” items.
Of course at the core of the Company are the folk who have learnt from the skills handed down by Geoffrey and subsequent members of his highly skilled team over the years, or have brought with them skills learnt elsewhere in the leather trade which have been embellished further while working within our workshops.
Geoffrey Caton, who started as a schoolboy with Geoffrey back in '58, seen here "topping" a Backgammon, circa 1975
Our work has always been niche - not only in our product and market, but also in the skills that we employ to create the World's finest games - this we are sure you will not be surprised to hear when dealing with such precise and specialised designs.
All design work is undertaken "in house", whether it is nowadays a computer assisted creation or, as many have and still are - a drawing on the "back of an envelope" which is turned into the most amazing and unique item of its kind in the World. Of course, this design process is often a "hand in hand" process with our customers, whether they be individuals or part of a World renowned design house in their own right.
Max, will just as often revert to the drawing board as he will the PC to create his designs and the visions of his customers.
Sometimes a new product can take months to develop while our team search for the best materials for the job (something that is getting more difficult to find these days as "specialist" suppliers are becoming scarcer in a mass-market world).
Jimmy installing a Roulette wheel in a game table
Often, despite having a huge array of traditional skills at our fingertips from the 300 combined years of expertise within our workshops, we can find a better and more modern way of solving a design issue............never do we rest on our laurels if there is a new innovative way in which we can create a better result, for you the customer.
The latest technology in printing, allows us to offer leather printing to our clients in full colour for those who prefer this over the traditional hand inlaid and foil embossed.
Once a design is established, which will often entail a number of prototypes, it is placed in the hands of our Workshop Manager who will see the order through the workshop, checking at every stage that the best materials for the job are used and all the intricate specifications often requested within a commission; are adhered to.
Louise, our current Workshop Manager, seen here "fine edging" - a highly delicate skill!
The first process is to select the leather skins, whether they are from our stock Dauphin calf leathers to exotic hides such as Alligator, Ostrich, Shagreen and Water snake.
Nick carefully inspects fine Alligator skin, for blemishes and what part is best to use for a particular job in hand.
Each skin has its own peculiarities whether it be in shape, soft/hardness. substance, print, cutting area, natural blemishes etc. All of which can affect what one makes out of it, what part of the skin is used for embossing, turn-edging, skiving, splitting etc. Every skin and part of the skin is different and presents different challenges to our craftsmen and women, as one would expect when dealing with a natural product such as ours.
Once selected the skins move to be cut, either by hand via patterns and templates............
Or by special press knives which we have made once a particular size or shape has been decided upon and are used on the clicking press below, as they are in numerous leather goods factories around the globe.
Over the years, we have amassed almost a thousand such knives, which act as an archival history of many items that no longer exist.
Once skins have been selected, carcasses have to be made so it is off to our woodshop to select suitable timber and substrates. Obviously, when applying wet glues etc to wood there can be a tendancy to warp one way or another, so balancers are often needed to pull against and correct this process. This is especially so when using fine thin veneers (down to 0.7 of a mm) and our ancient, and extremely heavy veneer press is a handy and reliable tool to have on hand!
Then often if binding leather onto a case for a Backgammon, for example, there will be parts that need to be thinner than others so there will not be bumps showing. For this we use skiving machines which will cut away the back of the leather - one has to be careful not to cut a hole in the leather, so this is a painstaking and careful process.
Here's Tom "skiving" and concentrating hard not to end up with a hole in the costly leather.
At this stage, the leather can go in all sorts of directions! Depending on the product being made, it might need embossing, usually, this is done in gold or silver foil, but on traditional Bridle hide, we often "blind" emboss, i.e. without foil. For this process, we will need to make a metal die in copper, brass or magnesium. Artwork may be provided by clients or our design team will assist and within a few days, we will have the embossing tool we need, beautiful etched. Below you can see a typical tray in which some famous logos may be recognisable; albeit as a mirror image!
Like many of the processes within the workshops, that to the uninformed may look easy, blocking as we call it (i.e. the embossing of leather) is anything but. Within about a half a second, the image made on leather has to go through a number of processes, all controlled by and experienced hand, where the "feel" is the most important thing. Every piece of leather is different - we are dealing with a natural material, so the grain, thickness, soft/hardness can be totally different across the same skin (depending on where the cut has been taken from) and from colour to colour. The blocker after years of practice, instinctively knows how much pressure to place on the leather (with a potential 2 and a half tons at their disposal it is easy to go right through the leather if one is not careful) to crush the grain enough to make the logo readable. However, the story does not end there, as two other factors come into play; the temperature, around 100°c (too much heat, the impression will furr/look blurry around the edges, not enough and the foil will not melt and adhere to the leather). The other is dwell - again too much time on the leather and the furring will happen, not enough and the impression will not "take"; and all this happening in under a second! Folk who get this wrong, often sell their wares on market stalls where "Real leather" is stamped and one can hardly ready it - as former bookbinders we know our stuff!
The machine and the operator may be getting on in years, but they're still doing a fine job!
Often one of the issues of inlaying is the varying thickness of the leather from skin to skin, colour to colour and even on the same skin; and of course our main concern, especially when making our Backgammon; is that the playing field should be completely flat, with nothing to slow play at Championship level. For this, we use a splitting machine; which effectively forces the leather between two rollers onto a very sharp blade and slices off the back of the hide. This saves a lot of time from the days when we used to do this by hand! If we require to thicken points to match the playing field, then these are built up to the level required by our craftsmen.
Marie concentrating on splitting!
With the leathers now cut, blocked, skived and split, it is off to the bench where our dedicated and highly skilled craftsmen will begin to turn these few pieces of leather, together with wood, board, glue and lots of patience; into something worthy of the most prestigious windows of the World's most luxurious shopping streets. These are some of the many processes that have been undertaken in our English country workshops over the years while producing a myriad of luxury items.
Mary in the early sixties making our twin deck of playing cards into two faux leather "books".
Peter taking a break while fine edging book blocks for our midget classics collection.
A late 60s early70s Backgammon with magnetic leather stones/checkers.
Louise hand sewing our handles - these are 100% leather throughout and very durable. A bottom and top riser is made from Bridle Hide and then covered in calf, so that it sits easy in the hand.
John painstakingly inlaying points into a leather Backgammon field.
Gilly hand rolling Chess chequer inlays - a lot of "elbow grease" is put into our work!
Maureen putting the finishing touches to a championship dice cup - having made the "trips" (or "lip") to kick unfair dice off their roll, these cups are also uncrushable, however, frustrated and angry one may get of luck is not on one's side!
Darren fitting leather straps for special suitcases for rare Scotch whiskies.
Holly inlaying the complex Cluedo® (Clue®) house layout.
Trish carefully adhering leather discs to Staunton chessmen before stowing them in the special folding case she has just made.
Brad installing the lining into a whisky suitcase.
Darren fitting out drawers for a game table.
John finishing off a Backgammon and using a bone folder which is an everyday traditional tool for the leather craftsman.
Tom "turn-edging" our iconic scalloped-sided plinth - a difficult shape to cope with, for even the most skilled leatherworker.
Maureen finishing off a Tic Tac Toe plinth, again using her "bone".
Edyta inlaying one of our old designs, a luxury Rubik® cube
Trish installing the lining for a Boulé (Petânque) case.
The "pills and potions" of the leather finisher.
Maureen "finishing" a scalloped sided plinth before packing.
Although each craftsman checks their own work, Joe, our QC Manager gives things the final once over.
There are of course many craftsmen and women who have been apprentices here over the years to whom we say a big "thank you" as they are much a part of the history of Geoffrey Parker as those who are proud to be current employees. Wherever possible we try and rely less and less on outside help (which is harder to find these days anyway) and bring in new skills into our workshops; so if you come on a workshop tour one day, there may be all sorts of surprises this web-site has not shown...........