Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

A History of Gfeller Casemakers

Karen

More and more people write to Exaclair asking where they can get a custom leather cover for their journal or notebook. Our diaries and sketchbooks are precious possessions, and nothing lends a sense of ruggedness and individuality more than a leather cover. After all, it was made especially for you.

Gfeller Casemakers makes covers for Moleskines, and recently they started to make them for both large and pocket Rhodia Webbies. They also offer their Idaho Professional Field Folio specifically sized for the A4 top stapled pad.  All their products can be seen here.

It is important to me to know the history of a company or product I plan to make my own.  It will tell me about their values and character, and by extension, what’s important to other people who own and use the products.  It’s that perceived kinship–past and present–that helps me to decide whether or not I want to belong to that group.

At my request, Steve Derricott, president and co-owner of Gfeller Casemakers, wrote this history of the company.  I am delighted and honored to share it with you on Rhodia Drive:

Roy Gfeller and his wife Mertie lived near Aurora, Colorado in 1946. Roy was scraping by on a small acreage raising a few cows and doing part time saddle building and repair. He was an outgoing individual and made friends easily.  Little is known about the ranching operation other than his desire to one day have his own place and raise purebred Short Horn Herford beef cattle.  Much more information is available concerning his leather work.  His journal contains details of saddle construction and most importantly shows an early disposition for purchasing only the best materials.  High quality materials and attention to detail are to be vitally important in developing his future business as a Casemaker and his reputation for using only the best parts of the hide in his products will help to spread his work to every corner of the globe.

A geology professor nearby became acquainted with Gfeller and upon learning of his leather working ability had a special request.  With a rough sketch in hand, he presented an idea for a belt pouch to be used by his geology students.  This pouch would be large enough to carry a standard field book (approx 4 1/2″ x 7 5/8″), have pencil loops and scale pockets on the front panel and a flap long enough to protect contents on the inside and front pocket.  This prototype would evolve into the still produced FCX field case and became a near instant success.  A wide variety of high quality Geoscience related tool carriers and protectors would soon follow.  A ready market was found in nearby Golden at the Colorado School of Mines.

The US Geological Survey with headquarters in Denver was charged with inventory and development of uranium and other strategic minerals deposits a rapidly growing force of geologists and field scientists required equipment for studies. Roy aided by his wife and partner Mertie were suddenly swamped with orders for leather goods. Quality trumped quantity at every turn and established Roy Gfeller Casemakers as the source of equipment that could be trusted to provide long service in rugged use. Hammer Carriers, Field Belts, Compass and Field Cases with the Gfeller cartouche would be recognized at mines and exploration projects worldwide in a few years time.  Gfeller produced specifications for field equipment would be adopted by the USGS for all leather items stocked in supply depot.  Astronauts in training for the Apollo missions to the moon would train for that longest distance exploration and rock sampling project with Gfeller gear.

From that chance encounter in Aurora a thriving small business grew. With little outside assistance Roy and Mertie hand build leather goods for a quickly growing Geoscience profession. Roy maintained the ranching dream for several years through moves to Franktown, Colorado and Big Timber, Arlee and Polson, Montana. Finally settling in the Spokane, Washington suburb of Trentwood in the mid 1970s, he would focus on the Casemakers business from then on. Though his health declined in later years Roy Gfeller was at his bench building field equipment in the tradition of the western saddler until his passing in 1983.

The mid 1980s brought a special challenge to Gfeller Casemakers. Though continuing to operate with past employees the demand for field equipment had taken a nose dive. Reduced demand was due primarily to the sudden exit of major oil producing companies in the US and aboard from mineral exploration. The attraction of profit potential  had drawn big-oil into mineral exploration and added hundreds of geologists to field projects.  This exit spawned an unprecedented downward spiral in geo-employment and the need for Geoscience field equipment.

Steve Derricott had experienced success as an exploration geologist and was looking for a career change in 1985. He felt there was potential in the Gfeller Casemakers business that had not been developed. His idea was simple and he had the history of cyclic metal prices and exploration demand on his side.  He knew the reason for hard times at Gfeller Casemakers was due to a down cycle and that historically a following upswing was predicted.  If he could acquire the business and learn the operations so that demand could be met when the next upswing occured the business would grow again. The key to long life in the company was to diversify before the sure to follow down swing arrived.  With help and constant support from his wife, Lori, the Derricott team rebuilt Gfeller Casemakers. They were fortunate to attract custom manufacturing work that solidified the business and spread the demand away from seasonal Geoscience to year-round contracts. Customers as diverse as electronics and custom knife makers to the Military Academy at West Point, New York helped to grow a diversified Gfeller Casemakers.  Changing markets have challenged the company and new products have been added to the lineup.

A custom order request for a calfskin notebook cover would prove very fortuitous. Not unlike the request to build a student geologist’s field pouch, over sixty years earlier, this notebook cover and its acclaim on the internet launched a demand for new items to new customers.  Suddenly Gfeller Casemakers is the focus of blogs and tweets by customers that had recently discovered the profoundly functional notebook covers and personal leather products.

We are a stronger organization today because we have never departed from Roy’s insistence on premium raw materials, no nonsense designs and most importantly we enjoy our work.

I have been blessed with good friends, devoted family and a profession that sustains and fulfills me.  I hope to keep it for a long time to come.”

– Steve Derricott  3/18/2011

The blog, The Gadgeteer, has a good review of a Gfeller notebook cover.  Read it here.

Gfeller Casemakers previously appeared on Rhodia Drive here.


7 thoughts on “A History of Gfeller Casemakers

  1. It was my pleasure to help Steve and Lori’s superb craftsmanship get the respect it deserves. Invest five minutes to watch their documentary/promotional video, “What’s Your Moleskine In?” That’s me behind the camera and on the edit bench.

    david boise ID

  2. It was my pleasure to help Steve and Lori’s superb craftsmanship get the respect it deserves. Invest five minutes to watch their documentary/promotional video, “What’s Your Moleskine In?” That’s me behind the camera and on the edit bench.

    david boise ID

  3. These look great! I will be sure to refer any customers of our Rhodia notebooks looking for a sturdy cover for their notebooks (not that the Rhodia notebooks aren’t sturdy enough) to the people over at Gfeller. Thanks for this post!

  4. These look great! I will be sure to refer any customers of our Rhodia notebooks looking for a sturdy cover for their notebooks (not that the Rhodia notebooks aren’t sturdy enough) to the people over at Gfeller. Thanks for this post!

  5. Excellent piece, thank you for sharing. I am a happy and repeat customer of Gfeller, and a self-appoiinted, unauthorized ambassador of goodwill for Gfeller. Having their products is a very good thing, and being able to tell folks about Gfeller’s quality and craftsmanship is enjoyable, and rewarding when folks comeback to thank me for turning them on to Steve, Lori, and the gang at Gfeller.

    p.s. My daughter has been following in my foot steps telling all of her friends and acquaintances at college about Gfeller.

  6. Excellent piece, thank you for sharing. I am a happy and repeat customer of Gfeller, and a self-appoiinted, unauthorized ambassador of goodwill for Gfeller. Having their products is a very good thing, and being able to tell folks about Gfeller’s quality and craftsmanship is enjoyable, and rewarding when folks comeback to thank me for turning them on to Steve, Lori, and the gang at Gfeller.

    p.s. My daughter has been following in my foot steps telling all of her friends and acquaintances at college about Gfeller.

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