Aaron Boyd, Owner of Tres Cuervos Leatherworks
When Aaron Boyd invited us into his Baca District leather workshop, it felt like we stepped onto a movie set. Vintage road signs and taxidermy hung on the walls, rolls and rolls of cow hides were stacked high on shelf, and a “Liberty or Death” pennant flag hung prominently on the wall. In the corner, a big metal bucket was overflowing with leather scraps and his shelves were full of vintage metal tools and supplies. He played with the brass bullet casings scattered across his work table as he began to speak to us.
SFF: Hey! Thank you for having us in your studio. Tell us how you got started.
AB: I started my company, Tres Cuervos Leatherworks, about four years ago. Before that I was a government contractor for 15 years managing a web development team. I started doing leatherwork because it was quiet, it was tangible, and I could start and finish something. In IT work you start a project and essentially it’s never complete. So leatherwork was a way for me to work with my hands, get creative, and do things that felt good.
SFF: What made you start?
AB: Part of the reason was because I couldn’t find a notebook cover, so I just made one. And then I couldn’t find a case for my phone, so I started making them. Then people I worked with saw them and after making 9 of them for free, I decided I should start charging. In December 2016 I transitioned out of IT work into full time leatherwork. At that point I was in about fifteen stores and I used an incredibly nerdy method to set up my next phase.
SFF: What was the method?
AB: So from the fifteen stores, I took the top five, looked at their product lines, and looked at the brands that were common among them. When I found three or four brands that were common among those four stores, because they represented my target demographic essentially, I went to those brands websites, found their lists of stockists, and plotted those stockists on a map. I hooked up my airstream trailer to my truck and I drove to Portland, Maine and followed all the pins on the map for like five months. I hit up around 110 stores with my products and I ended up with 40 customers.
SFF: Wow. 40 out of 110? That’s a pretty good success rate. And you got to do a cross country road trip.
AB: Yeah, I slept in a lot of Cracker Barrel parking lots. I wanted to clear my mind from my previous few years. Get reacquainted with America after a very discouraging year. I felt like maybe I didn’t know my country like I thought I did. I wanted to believe that it was the America I felt like I knew. And, after visiting most of the country, I’m glad to say it really is an even better place I thought it was. It’s an amazing place and people are amazing. We all want basically the same things. Most everyone I met was working hard, trying hard. It was heartening.
SFF: So you were on the road for five months...
AB: Maybe a little longer. I started in Portland, Maine, hit all the stores going south, then took a right at Raleigh, NC. I then went through Louisiana and Texas, and came back to Santa Fe for a few days just to take all the crap out of the trailer I wasn’t using and put new stuff in. Then I went to San Diego, through California and Oregon to Seattle, across the country to Jackson, Wyoming and then south. So that was phase one of the plan.
SFF: And phase two?
AB: Phase two was to do the trade show circuit. I went to those and met a bunch of people whose stores I went to. And I picked up some more customers. So now I’m in just under 100 locations around the country.
SFF: That’s awesome.
AB: Yeah, and in September I opened a shop in Albuquerque. The small batch movement, this American made maker movement, it feels very small and there is a real community. A lot of them have stores, and they carry my products and I carry their products, so we support each other in that way. I probably have about 30-40 brands in the store, and I would guess that I know 20 of the makers.
SFF: Are all the products you carry local?
AB: No, I carry Ace Rivington jeans and they’re in Santa Barbara, I carry candles from Houston, I carry hats from upstate New York. Most of the brands I carry are American made, small batch. The only local products I carry are mine and the Incienso De Santa Fe. It’s piñon incense and it smells like a campfire. Let me show you.
SFF: It does smell really good in here. And I like that you’re lighting the incense with a miniature blowtorch.
AB: Well, I’ve never been good at half-assing things.
SFF: So tell us more about your store in Albuquerque.
AB: I wanted a store for my brand because it provides a great environment to take a lot of pictures and it’s an opportunity to talk about the people that are in my industry that I care about. t’s also a good way to keep constant contact with current and potential customers. A lot of what I did in the first year was wholesale. Very little of my business was direct to consumer. It’s growing that way now just because of Instagram, and I really wish I had done Instagram three years ago. It wouldn’t have been hard and my reach would have been greater.
SFF: So your store was almost like a showroom for different brands.
AB: Yeah, and frankly it’s a spot for me to put one-off stuff that I am making and experimenting with and sell it. I’ve sold a lot of leather goods there that I would never put into production, but I was just puttering around in the shop.
SFF: Like what?
AB: Like trucker wallets. It’s a long wallet with a chain on it, either braided leather or brass. I’ve had a lot of people reach out through Instagram from a picture and say they want one or their partner wants one.
SFF: So it’s a good place to test concepts. I’ll have to go down and check it out. what other products do you make?
AB: I do wallets, belt hooks, key chains, braided and smooth bracelets, and dump trays that folks use to empty their pockets. I make notebook covers that also work for passport covers and I also make coasters. For some of my bracelets I use bullet shells as the clasp and I also use African trade beads. I’ve become obsessed with African Trade beads. I went to Tuscon to the Gem & Mineral show and bought mud cloth from Mali, Indigo from Burkina Faso, baoule cloth from Cote d’Ivoire. I use both new and old beads like Krobo and sandcast Beads from Ghana, beads from the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania,, snake glass beads that are made to look like snake vertebrae.
SFF: I really like those glass beads.
AB: Those are called Krobo beads. They are made by the Krobo people in Ghana in West Africa. They take powdered glass and dye and they put it in these trays with the divots cut out for the bead size, they put a cassava stem through it, and they have these kilns made with termite mud. They fire them, it burns off the stem, infuses the bead with the color, and leaves these gnarly holes in them. They’ve been doing it the same way for hundreds of years. I love them. They’re rustic, they're beautiful and each is entirely unique. Pick a color and I’ll make you one.
SFF: No way! That would be awesome. It’s really refreshing to meet people and really like what they make.
AB: Oh, I’m glad! You know when I was working in IT I used to go to the SXSW in Austin every year for the interactive conference. I would have to go to the government track and it was challenging because all this other awesome shit was going on, but I wasn’t able to be a part of it. But I went to this entrepreneurship talk and bought this woman’s book. In it she wrote “You can’t be personally attached to other people’s opinions of what you make.” Basically you are begging for disappointment if you wrap yourself up too much in what other people think. In my head I was like “Oh, of course, I’m not going to do that.” But as soon as somebody likes what I do, I’m like, “Really? Validate me!” [Laughs]
SFF: I guess it’s the negativity that you want to ignore.
AB: Yeah, it’s hard to ignore that. But luckily I haven’t gotten a lot of haters.
SFF: Where do you get your leather hides?
AB: Most of the leather I use is Horween Leather from a tannery in Chicago. It’s one of the last heritage tanneries in the United States. They’ve been doing it the same way for over 100 years.
SFF: What do you mean by a heritage tannery?
AB: It’s basically a tannery that uses traditional and old-world tannages and techniques. For some tannages, one of their hides takes 30 or more steps, many by hand, over a period of 3-6 months to finish. They have guys working who have been doing the same thing for like 30 years. It’s done with love, it’s a family business. If you’re interested in the American Made movement, they’re an incredible company.
SFF: Are you from New Mexico?
AB: No, I’m from all over. I was born in Ohio, lived in New York for 7 years, lived in Phoenix for 7, as a kid, went to high school in Phoenix and central Oregon. I then went to college in Nashville, and was there for 14 years, so I say I’m from Nashville and I feel like I’m from Nashville.
SFF: What are some of your favorite places in Santa Fe to hang out?
AB: I mostly work. I spend a lot of time here at the shop. For a long time this was my respite. It wasn’t as much my livelihood as it provided funny money, a way that I could make money to support hobbies. But Opuntia the teahouse is one of my favorite spots. It’s easy to get work done there. The owners Tod & Gina are great people. I like to have a beer at Tiny’s, one of Santa Fe’s best dives. It’s the best place to get a shot of tequila and a can of beer. A friend and I are going there on Tuesday to have a Tecate and a shot tequila at Tiny’s on Tuesday. We’re calling it Tee time.
SFF: Is that a thing?
AB: Now it is! We just talked about it today. My favorite places to eat are The Bite, La Choza (because it’s more local), and I like La Plazuela at La Fonda. Their filet & enchilada is really good.
SFF: Your work seems so fun. Do you have a good time making all this stuff?
AB: Oh I love it. It’s the best. It’s restorative.
During the course of this interview, Aaron made us a few products to take home. He created two bead & leather bracelets, leather coasters, and invited us back to his workshop for more. To see him create these products by hand - slipping each bead on the string, sewing the leather clasps, burning the thread, hand pressing the coasters - was a beautiful show of the craftsmanship and thought that go into his products. To see for yourself, visit his website or shop to browse his handmade leather goods.