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Jonathan Mascher

Fish Skin Artisan

Like other visitors exploring the village of Fanlac, we have ventured inside Kristof and Jonathan Mascher’s atelier, attracted by the wooden sign advertising “Cuir de Poisson” and a doorknob in the shape of a fish. “The people who visit the shop have time to listen to the story,” Jonathan says, “For me, it’s my job to tell the story of how we found out about this technique again, how it was something that was lost and we have a place for it today. We need to guard it, to help it live.”

For thirty years, leatherworker Kristof Mascher has made purses, belts, bracelets, and wall art; for the past ten years, however, he has incorporated fish leather, tanned using an ancient Inuit technique. In their studio, we met Jonathan, Kristof’s eldest son. Jonathan has been carrying on the family tradition for five years now in the workshop he shares with his father. Their home and studio is right on the main street of Fanlac, a few doors down from the village’s 12th century church perched on a hill overlooking the Dordogne Valley.

“If you tan with chemicals, you lose all the quality of the skin. You lose the natural pigmentation of the skins, which are quite beautiful,” Jonathan says, holding out a thick, silvery strip of tanned fish leather. Jonathan walks us through the process of tanning fish skins in a chemical-free, plant-based liquid that preserves the skin’s sheen and strengthens the leather.

Kristof and Jonathan Mascher’s products are either inlaid with fish leather, or created using “leather marquetry,” where different pieces of textiles are joined side-by-side, like a puzzle, to create a single new surface.

Jonathan shows us photos of prehistoric waterproof clothes—even shoes—made only with fish skin, especially salmon, worn by a Siberian tribe of Inuit people called the Nanais, who lived only off of fishing. With great expertise and respect, he explains the decorations on the clothing, which convey Inuit beliefs about the spirit world. Fish leather is so durable, some of these clothes were worn for three generations. While Jonathan and his father use needles and nylon thread to sew their leather goods, the prehistoric Inuit people used bones and animal tendons, what Jonathan calls “prehistoric hi-tech.”

Sadly, although three Inuit clans still remain and 10,000 Nanais are alive today, the ancient art of tanning fish skins has been lost—with one exception.

“Every fish has his own world, I would say,”

Jonathan reflects, and it’s true – every piece has its own unique colors and patterns, like fish scales glittering underwater.

The artist Anatol Donkan is a Nanais descendent who studied the ancient technique of tanning fish skins. For years, Anatol researched the remaining examples of Nanais fish leather clothing to understand the process and bring this art back to life. Anatol found it curious that the Nanais clothes were all donated to European museums by a man named Adolf. Adolf, Jonathan says, “is the father of my grandmother’s mother,” a merchant who traveled often to Siberia between 1870 and 1914, especially along the Trans-Siberian Railway and the rivers. Once Anatol Donkan made contact with Jonathan and Kristof Mascher, Adolf’s descendents and leather workers themselves, the story came full circle, or, as Jonathan puts it:  “That’s how the fish leather, which was in the hands of my ancestors, rises through time, even if the technique was forgotten, and is now in my hands again. I never believed in destiny, but that can’t be an accident.”

In response to Aimee’s question of where the fish skin comes from, Jonathan tells us about fish farms: “Today, fish skin is always thrown away, because we don’t know what to do with it. For us, it’s quite good. Salmon is one of the most farmed, so it’s easy to get. Sturgeon, too. We have a lot of material we are throwing away, and we could do something very nice with it.”

“Every fish has his own world, I would say,” Jonathan reflects, and it’s true—every piece has its own unique colors and patterns, like fish scales glittering underwater.

With their fish leather art sold in their atelier in Fanlac, Jonathan and Kristof Mascher, along with Anatol Donkan, bridge worlds, from Siberia to the Dordogne, and cross time, from the era of the ancient Inuit people to today.