‘These days, people are back on the search for authentic products again, and there is a renewed fascination with how a particular handicraft or technique is mastered.’ So says Sofie De Ville of the thinking behind Handmade in Belgium (HIB), an initiative of the Belgian entrepreneurial support organisation UNIZO, of which she is project coordinator. Conceived to ‘recognise the producers of genuine, traditional, quality products’ within Belgium, HIB offers a certificate of authenticity, publicly promoting artisanal brands as experts in their field. It is an organisational manifestation of an emerging trend that sees consumers increasingly appreciating the exceptional results of traditional methods and real hand-craftsmanship.
Handmade in Belgium
Around 400 businesses now proudly sport the Handmade in Belgium badge. From fine jewellery to handbags, furnishings to foods, HIB’s team seeks out experts in every area, though the qualifying criteria are strict. Businesses must be smaller than 20 employees, a substantial proportion of their products must be made by hand, and they must offer ‘a certain practical usefulness that distinguishes them from artists’, explains De Ville. ‘Too many traditional and technical trades are threatened with extinction,’ she continues. She and her team hope to turn this around.
One of the first brands to receive the HIB label was Niyona. Founded six years ago in Brussels by Jonathan Wieme and Nina Bodenhorst, it grew out of what they perceived as ‘a lack of expertise, services, transparency and quality’ in the leather goods market. ‘We were frustrated that most famous brands in the country produced abroad,’ explains Wieme. The pair began with a small workshop, producing beautiful bags and small leather goods. Their skill and commitment was soon recognised, and the brand has come a long way since, with a number of high-profile collaborations under its belt.
‘Today more and more people know and cherish the HIB movement,’ says Wieme. For Niyona, it’s a crucial way to stand out and an important support for small businesses: ‘Big brands have never been as wealthy as they are now, and small artisans still face difficulties in surviving. So more than ever it’s important to protect them, and try to find a way to distinguish real and local craftsmanship,’ Wieme adds.
Artisinal fine jewellery
It’s not only young brands that HIB seeks to support. Wim Meeussen founded his eponymous jewellery company in 1987. An expert goldsmith, Meeussen does not believe in mass production; every one of his pieces is individual, created by hand by him and his team in a small workshop above his boutique in Antwerp. ‘Nowadays people are looking for personal and unique products and experiences,’ says the designer. He is committed to providing this. His jewellery, which contrasts textures and materials, and is classic and elegant with a twist, can be purchased only in his store.
Meeussen has also launched a service which he calls ‘goldsmith for a day’, whereby clients can book a day with him and his team in the workshop, having personal input in the design of a bespoke piece. ‘Seeing this process of creation and being a part of it is the most intimate and personal experience that one can encounter,’ he explains. ‘The most exciting thing will always be the happy faces of my customers when they open the jewellery box.’
Handmade in Bruges
In Bruges, another organisation is spearheading the handmade movement: Handmade in Brugge. One of its most successful members is luxury chocolatier The Chocolate Line. Founder Dominique Persoone took his passion for cocoa and turned it into a business, launching his company in 1992 (with much help from his wife Fabienne, he’s keen to add). Its creations are beyond delicious, winning frequent prizes at the International Chocolate Awards, and are also a firm favourite with locals.
Persoone takes chocolate very seriously. The Chocolate Line even has its own cocoa plantation in Yucatan, Mexico, where skilled local workers harvest the beans using ancient organic methods. It also has its own bees to source its honey, and all but the most exotic of ingredients are freshly prepared by the team. Persoone feels it’s important that organisations like Handmade in Brugge, as well as customers, support artisanal craftsmen. In the modern age, he finds, ‘the world becomes one big global town. It’s easy to get every product everywhere. But thanks to the internet artisanal work is appreciated, and that makes a difference.’
For Persoone, and surely many more like him, the support of these groups is helping him to continue with his passion. ‘I still can’t believe that I’m actually doing it,’ he says of his success with The Chocolate Line. So when new visitors come to discover his creations, what does he recommend they try? The Asian Confetti chocolate is his pick. ‘I love Asian flavours: rice vinegar, soy sauce … it’s very exciting to make everything balance with chocolate.’ Unusual, certainly – and deliciously so.