Each month, we visit a small-scale, high-quality manufacturer that’s big on provenance. For May, we trotted into Dahlman, a 200-year-old saddlery currently owned by brothers Erik and Frank Hendriksen, direct descendents of an original Dahlman employee.
Barely two weeks after the British attacked Denmark on 4 September 1807, during the Second Battle of Copenhagen, 28-year-old Wilhelm Ludvig Dahlman founded his eponymous saddlery. In those days, Denmark was quite the European superpower – the kingdom stretched south into Germany and north to swallow the whole of Norway. Fearing Napoleon’s defeat of the Danish in the south, the British planned a surprise attack on Copenhagen to confiscate the nation’s fleet, thus preventing the little emperor from getting his hands on potentially devastating firepower.
Dahlman must have been a shrewd businessman because, 10 days after the British successfully captured the fleet, he spotted a morbid gap in the market, many of his leatherworking counterparts having died during the war. He set up shop in Saddlers’ Court, behind the Royal Stable, where, today, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Museum of Arms and Uniforms are found.
It wasn’t until his sons took over the company, after his death in 1845, that the business started to flourish. Fredrik and Lauritz Dahlman had grown up in the workshop, learning and improving on the skills their father had taught them, and they were the catalyst for international acclaim, touting their spectacular saddles at revered overseas competitions.
During the second half of the 19th century, until the late 1950s, the saddlery was passed down from Dahlman father to Dahlman son. In 1959, a one-time apprentice, Willy Hendriksen, the father of the current owners, took over the company. Architects Arne Jacobsen, Hans J Wegner and Børge Mogensen were keen to enlist Dahlman in the production of leather goods. “Arne Jacobsen once asked our father to make him a black belt, at a time when they only came in tan. Father sourced a black hide and the resultant ‘Samur’ belt became a piece of design history, with its unique horse-bit buckle,” says Hendriksen’s son, Frank.
Working with architects on vanity projects proved too time-consuming for Hendriksen and he decided to cut ties soon afterwards. His sons, Frank and Erik Hendriksen, joined the company in 1959 and 1962 respectively, and their father’s entrepreneurial spirit lives on in their portfolio of products. Old man Hendriksen, long since retired, still spends two or three hours a week working the leather.
Nowadays, the brothers can’t compete with cheaper, lower quality saddlemakers from abroad. “We no longer manufacture entire saddles – we prefer to restore vintage pieces and concentrate on diversifying our business into other areas of leatherwork,” says Erik. They provide most of the riding schools in Denmark with bridles, bits, tassels and buckles, and sell equestrian accoutrements to wealthy foreign riders.
“We also produce sandals, which were very popular with architects in the 1960s, and we monogrammed belts and briefcases,” explains Frank. When asked what is so special about the Dahlman methods, the two brothers are united in their testimony, “Our stitching is unique in the industry. We make a knot for every stitch we sew and we wax the thread. We have also found a tannery that treats our leather the old-fashioned way, but we’re not going to tell you who they are – that secret is ours to keep!”
As offers from superstar architects flood in, the brothers are adamant they won’t expand. “We don’t have the time or resources to train new employees – so, by the time we retire, there will be no one to take over.” Head to Copenhagen and buy into two centuries of history while you still can. The brothers will be waiting, but for how long?
Dahlman, Fortunstræde 5, Copenhagen