The empty cobra heads stared up at me from the blue countertop. “Don’t worry,” Mario continued, pointing to the pile of elephant skin across the counter. “We’re only allowed these if they’re already dead.”
The maze into the oldest boot factory in America, Lucchese, had only just begun and already my head was swirling in between aisles of different colors, patterns, textures, and hides that still possessed eyelids. My vegetarian tendencies squirmed.
Luckily, the process quickly improves from “kinda gross” to “insanely impressive.” Insanely. Walking out of the textiles area and into the workroom, it’s hard to fathom a patch of snakeskin with beady little eyeholes turning into anything, much less a beautifully intricate, hand-sewn, sturdy leather boot.
“How many pairs of hands does a pair touch before it’s done?” I ask Mario, marveling at the sheer size of this endeavor, grazing my hand over a swatch of stingray, glittery and diamond-like.
“Around 275,” he replies quickly, giving a slight nod to confirm the hard-to-believe number. It sounds ridiculous and not at all financially solvent – 275 people are necessary per boot? 275 stages where something can go wrong due to simple human error? But these people don’t make errors. They’re machines. Plenty must come across the border from Juarez every morning to secure their daily paycheck, while others, I’m told, are 2nd and 3rd generation Americans whose fathers and grandfathers taught them their craft, some sitting in the very same chair, working on the same bright blue machine as their elders, performing the same task: The men hold nails in their mouths the same way men held nails in their mouths 100 years ago.
The seamstresses still weave and stab to make intricate designs, their fingers taped off due to existing or impending injury. From there, the sheets of leather get soaked, blasted with heat, hammered, nailed, bent, battered, and shaped until something resembling a boot takes form and the workers can finally relax their fingers. Regardless of each individual’s responsibility, one thing is very clear: these people are far more talented, patient, and skilled than I am and will ever be.
I pick up a pair at the end of the conveyor belt with a price tag that reads $1295.00.
“...Mario, shouldn’t it be more?”
Lucchese is based out of El Paso, Texas, with stores also in San Antonio, Houston, Nashville, TN, and Santa Fe, NM. They've been handcrafting boots since 1883.