Up until this week, when I thought of Mexico, the beautiful white sand beaches of Cancun came to mind. Say what you want about the Mayan Riviera; the beaches are among the most beautiful in the world…..even if they are man made. It never dawned on me that Mexico was really a foreign country. My view was totally suntanned. It has been years since I basked in the sun on those beaches, but my memory of it was very Americanized. The truth about the “real” Mexico is completely different.
There are photos sprinkled throughout this post, so please keep reading to see the story unfold.
A few weeks back, I was extended an invitation from Alfonso Marina Ebanista in Mexico City to tour their factory and see their showroom. I’ve done business with them for years, and knew all about their quality, design, and generally fabulous product; so, I was intrigued. It wasn’t exactly a place that was high up on my to-see list, but the fact that it was an all expenses paid trip sweetened the deal. Given the current social climate in Mexico, elective travel is not advised; but I felt safe in the fact that Alfonso Marina is a first rate company and that they would escort me wherever I went. The Camino Real Polanco Hotel was rated as super safe, so against the better judgement of Bobby, my friends, and family, I went…..and I am ever so glad I did.
The ride from the airport to the hotel confirmed that I was in a third world country, but once behind the gate of the hotel, a beautiful side of Mexico emerged. Brightly colored and spacious, with typical Mexican stucco finishes and marble floors; the hotel was beautiful.
I was met by my sales rep and the owners of Alfonso Marina and we proceeded to the factory….about an hour away from the hotel. Did I mention that Mexico City is the largest city in the world? It is an hour to everything.
The factory is in an industrial part of town, tucked behind guarded gates in old buildings. It forms a compound around their offices. We started our tour in the engineering department. All of the pieces start here. Detailed drawings are done entirely by hand. Models are made from those drawings, and the drawings are tweaked again after the prototype is perfected. Once perfected, the drawings are recorded on their computer system, but they maintain those beautiful hand drawn ones and those are the ones they use to build each piece. We met their engineering staff, as well as the person who carves all of the original carved details. It was readily apparent that all of those pieces I have changed just a little bit….adding an inch or two here….or an inlay line there….had to be COMPLETELY re-engineered.
The next stop on the tour was the prototype room where all of the first pieces are produced. Here, they make templates and jigs from which the production pieces are made. Templates and jigs are painted bright yellow so they don’t get mixed up with the actual wood pieces to be used in the finished products. The next area was where the templates were stored. A huge room with rack after rack of intricate pieces. Chair parts are kept in neatly organized boxes. We then saw the room where all the router knives are kept that make the beautiful moldings on their pieces. They have an artist on staff full time creating these knives, and repairing the existing ones. We moved from there to their raw wood storage and receiving area where the real process begins. A production list follows each piece through the factory, from the time the wood is pulled from storage, then cut into the rough blocks it takes to make each piece. The rough blocks are put on a trolley which stays with the piece throughout its creation.
There are no CNC machines. Old fashioned bandsaws and lathes are where the magic happens. Their workers are extremely skilled artisans. The factory was like stepping back in time….years before the modern technology most companies utilize. When I asked Carlos Marina how the wood turner knew he had a particular leg made correctly the response was “It is in his heart. He has made this leg many times, and knows exactly when it is perfect.” That quality is characteristic of every employee…..and the owners recognize that, and treat their employees with the utmost respect. We walked on through the production line seeing drawer fronts being glued together and sawed out on the band saw. We saw legs being applied, and pieces being assembled.
Near the end of the construction process, we saw the room where the inlay work is done. All of the veneers and inlay are hand matched and hand cut, specifically for each piece. Truly amazing. Their supply room for veneers was incredible. So many different types of wood, in such thin pieces. After the miracle of the inlay and veneer department, we went to a part of the factory where end grain banding was being cut and applied, as well as where their signature tiny “stripe” banding was being glued together and cut into the stripes. It was a beautiful process.
The final part of building one was the final assembly and sanding area. All the pieces come together in this area and the finished product begins to emerge. After final assembly, the pieces are transported across the parking lot to building two for distressing, finishing, and packing.
Between the two main buildings is a small room where hardware is milled. Brass barrel hinges are cut by hand from long tubes. Escutcheons for locks are hand cut out, and engraved entirely by hand. Iron locks and straps are finished and distressed. Hinges are cast and drilled.
The distressing is done completely by hand. They don’t miss a detail with this, and the worker moved swiftly and with great skill. He had no fear of scraping a corner off a beautiful drawer front, or putting a gash 5″ long on its face. Even the insides, backs, and bottoms of the pieces that are distressed get that treatment. It really adds to the overall authentic look. After distressing, pieces receive a final sanding, and then move on to the finish department. Varnish is applied to the wood first, and then stains are hand applied and rubbed to achieve depth and patina. Waxes or sealers are the final layer.
Also in the finish department is the area where artists hand paint pieces. Bone details on some of the pieces are “inked” with a tiny pen by hand, creating intricate designs. Pieces getting gold leaf trim are finished here as well. The artisans have a vision to create finishes that look as though they have survived for hundreds of years. Hand painted designs are done here as well.
Finally, pieces are carefully packed and shipped.
After a full morning at the factory, we paused for a decadent lunch at a restaurant near the showroom. The showroom was beautiful. Over 14000 square feet, and every room was full of the fabulous products we saw being created in the morning. Alfonso Marina is keeping alive a lost art. Their products are truly bench made, and hand crafted in every way. I am thankful for the experience, and have a new found appreciation for their furniture which really is “art.”