At a well-lit workbench in the heart of Abu Dhabi's Al Khaznah Tannery, Jean-Marie Gigante is showing me the difference between camel leather and cow leather. He rifles through the mountain of samples in front of him - a jumble of hot pinks, electric blues, soft beiges and glitzy golds - and selects two specimens. "You can really see the difference," he says, holding them up to the light. "Cow leather is smoother. It is very noble, too, but camel has a real character to it."
Camel hide, I learn, has 10 times as many fibres per square centimetre as cow hide, which helps protect the animal in the extreme environments that it traditionally inhabits. "As a result, you get a leather that is extremely durable and extremely tough, with a higher tear strength than normal leather," Gigante explains. "You also have a nice pattern that is unique to the animal, which I find extremely attractive."
The camel is a fundamental part of life in the Emirates. Whether they're grazing by the roadside or grinning at you from the back of a postcard, you can't go far without being reminded of the camel's revered place in Emirati culture.
But until I came across Al Khaznah Tannery, it hadn't really occurred to me that the camel was more than just a symbol of Arabian exoticism; it also fulfils an important economic function, as a source of meat and, increasingly, leather.
Hidden among the dunes on the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain truck road, Al Khaznah Tannery is one of the most advanced leather-producing facilities in the world, but also one of the most low-key. Few people will be aware of the work being done in this unassuming blue-glass fronted building, or of the many merits and applications of the high-quality camel leather produced within its confines. Gigante, the tannery's general manager, is on a mission to change that.
A veteran of the leather industry, Gigante studied chemical engineering in Lyon in his native France before discovering that his skills could be applied to the niche leather trade. "I did my postgraduate degree in leather science and discovered the magic of the tannery. It's about transforming something that is a by-product, or waste, from the meat industry into something noble and valuable, which acts as a strategic material."
Gigante has spent the last 30 years working in the leather industry, for large corporations in Europe, Africa and Asia. He has also acted as a leather consultant to the United Nations, conducting feasibility studies, seminars and training in places such as China, India and Bangladesh, encouraging the leather industries in these countries to adopt cleaner technologies and better environmental management policies.
Before moving to Abu Dhabi two-and-a-half years ago, he spent eight years with the Hermès Group, as managing director of the company's crocodile leather tannery, the largest facility of its kind in the world. "It was a huge operation, producing precious skins for prestigious clients. It was owned by Hermès but we were also selling to other brands such as Gucci, Prada and Chanel."
I ask whether there is room for camel leather in the collections of these reputable fashion houses.
"Indeed," says Gigante, without hesitation.
"We have this new ultra-soft camel leather; it's like butter. If you had a jacket made of that with a Hermès label on it, no one would be surprised. We are already in final negotiations with two high fashion houses in Europe.
"In Europe, the camel is not necessarily associated with prestige. It's something exotic, but it reminds people of their last long weekend in Marrakech; it's not very prestigious. I want to change that."
Al Khaznah Tannery was conceptualised eight years ago by Abu Dhabi's Ministry of Presidential Affairs. "It was part of an overall programme aimed at supporting the camel trade," says Gigante. "Slaughterhouses dedicated to camels have been set up in the country and the government is trying to support camel farming by subsidising the cost of the meat. This tannery was set up next to one of those slaughterhouses. I believe that the Ministry of Presidential Affairs wanted to add value to the raw materials that were becoming available with the industrial-scale slaughter of these animals."
It took five years and a considerable financial investment before the facility was ready. As we tour the tannery, Gigante points to the quarter-of-a-million dollar (Dh918,000) tanning drums and fully automated conveyor systems that set it apart. We stop off at the lab, which is brimming with state-of-the-art machinery and testing equipment. The whole place is fully air-conditioned, spotless and, contrary to what I had been told to expect, doesn't smell. "Tanneries have a reputation for polluting and for smelling," Gigante acknowledges. "But because we have optimised the process, it does not smell any more than it should."
It also doesn't pollute any more than it should. In keeping with Gigante's commitment to sustainability, the tannery's leathers are all entirely chrome free. This means that if they are incinerated at the end of their lifespan, they will not emit the highly toxic, potentially carcinogenic Chrome 6, while chrome-tanned leathers might. Gigante is also very specific about the chemicals that the tannery uses, and has developed a new type of leather that is entirely biodegradable if used with a certain compost.
In fact, the entire premise behind the facility is a sustainable one, Gigante points out. "We can find cows locally but camels are of course more abundant and the whole idea of our activity is to be as sustainable and responsible as possible. I object to importing hides from Normandy or America when we have so many raw materials here. That's why this tannery was created; to use local resources."
In spite of this, Gigante has struggled to gain market acceptance for his "newfangled" camel leathers, even though they cost the same as other types of leather. Because leather consumer goods have traditionally been imported into the UAE, he has had to contend with a leather manufacturing industry that is still largely in its infancy. He has encountered a lack of understanding of the benefits of leather as compared with plastic or other man-made materials, and a certain reticence about working with a UAE-based company that has not yet proven its stripes.
"One thing they found difficult to comprehend was that our leather was made in the UAE. I found some resistance with companies that were used to importing things from the UK or elsewhere, and were a bit hesitant about shifting to the unknown. I get asked all the time, 'Could a tannery in the UAE really be as good as a tannery in Italy?' Yes, it can.
"I'm not sure if the fact that it was camel really helped us in the beginning. I think our customers began to appreciate that we were offering custom-made production in a cost-effective way. They could have something that was designed locally, to their exact specifications, and delivered within a reasonable time. But camel leather was viewed as something very exotic and eccentric when I started two-and-a-half years ago. It was more reassuring for companies that were dealing with us for the first time to work with cow leather, because at least that was familiar."
One of the first industries to warm to the idea of using locally produced camel leather was the shoe industry, which now accounts for 30 to 40 per cent of the tannery's business. The UAE has an established shoe manufacturing industry, which also exports its products to the rest of the world, so this was an obvious place to start, Gigante says.
Next, he explored the corporate goods sector. "I realised that a lot of leather goods were imported to serve the needs of businesses here. I realised that most of the time, people believed that they were buying leather objects when in reality they were plastic. So I went out and found craftsmen that could produce these items from our leathers."
These include gift boxes, agendas, desk accessories, iPad covers, folders, shoulder bags and even al burqas, the decorated leather hoods that are placed over a falcon's head. Many of these items are currently sold at the Emirates Palace hotel, and Gigante is in the process of developing partnerships with other retailers in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Otherwise, customers that are interested in acquiring camel leather goods are invited to visit the tannery itself.
Gigante has now set his sights on the furniture industry, which comes with its own set of challenges. Because of the shape of camels, with their long legs and relatively small bodies, the average camel hide is far smaller than the average cow hide - not a problem if you are making a wallet but a challenge if you are creating a sofa. Nonetheless, Gigante has partnered with a Dubai-based interior designer, Mira Ghanem, who has created a number of majlis-style seating options out of camel leather.
Today, unlike many tanneries around the world that specialise in a certain type of leather or cater to a specific segment of the market, Al Khaznah's operation is remarkably diversified. The tannery produces leather for the shoe and corporate goods industries, and on a smaller scale for the fashion, automotive, aviation and yachting industries. The tannery has the capacity to process 1,000 hides (cow or camel) a day, as well as 1,000 skins (sheep or goat), although 80 per cent of its output is camel. Camel hides are brought in from all around the GCC to be processed at Al Khaznah.
Back at the workbench, I'm stunned by the versatility of a material which only a short while earlier was entirely unknown to me. I'm presented with camel leather in every conceivable colour, and in every imaginable degree of suppleness, from the beige softer-than-soft gloving leather that may one day be turned into a Hermès jacket, to the sturdy two-tone brown leather that I would love to transform into a sofa for my living room.
Of course, there are less appealing options, too. A neon-green camel-hide handbag, anyone?
To find the tannery from Abu Dhabi, take the E22 south, turn off at Exit 78 and go to the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain truck road. Go 10km east on this until you see a sign for Al Khaznah Tannery on your right. Call 02 566 2000 or visit www.alkhaznatannery.com