The Pursuit of Excellence

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Approximately two years ago I was having conversations with the owners of a couple of well known luxury leather goods manufacturers about brass briefcase locks and brass hardware.  The gist of the conversation was that Italian locks are superior to British ones and that the British ones don’t last.  Around the same time I read an article about Naoyuki Komatsu of Ortus Leather in Japan on Simon Crompton’s website Permanent Style in which it is mentioned that Naoyuki Komatsu resorted to making his own locks and brass hardware.  He mentions that the British brass hardware is the best but he resorted to making his own hardware because the British manufacturers do not offer variations in the classic lock designs.  I was a little puzzled and decided that some day I would like to get to the bottom of this.

During a recent trip to visit a client in Europe the opportunity to visit an Italian brass hardware manufacturer came up.  I knew that this manufacturer had been supplying some big manufacturers of luxury leather goods in the U.K.  I shall refrain from mentioning any names.

The manufacturer kindly supplied me with a sample briefcase lock for showing to customers.  I already had a number of different locks manufactured in England.  Upon initial inspection my thoughts were that the Italian lock was better then the English one.  However upon my return and upon placing the Italian and English locks side by side my initial thoughts were challenged.  Initially the Italian lock felt smoother and quieter to operate.  The English one felt quite stiff and a little rough to operate.  Another feature that is immediately apparent is that the the mechanism housing on the rear is quite low profile compared with the English lock.  This was particularly interesting to me because I found that the English locks need a lot of padding on the inside of the leather to make it fit properly without any big steps for users to catch their hands or items on during operation.  However the immediate difference, arguably most importantly, was the fact that the English lock felt much more sturdy and heavy duty than the Italian one.  The material was heavier and the feel and sound when operating the English lock gave the sense of high quality and robustness.

Today was the day and both locks were disassembled for an inspection of the innards.  More surprises.  Please see below a video showing clips of the teardown of the two locks.  The chrome plated one is the English made lock and the brass one is the Italian version.  Both are made with solid brass.  Please see the video below.

The Italian lock immediately appears to be of lighter construction.  The mechanism casing on the back is lower profile than the English lock which means there is less space for components.  This can be seen in the video.  The internal components of the Italian lock are very neat looking.  There is symmetry and parts are finished well.

On the other hand the English lock has a relatively bulky rear casing but the internal components are much heavier.  The finish of the internal components is not as good as the Italian lock.

Before taking the locks apart I noticed that the Italian one was much smoother to operate.  The reason for this is twofold.  Firstly the main sliding plate in the English lock is filed coarsely giving it a very rough finish.  This component causes vibration and noise when it rubs against the stationary components.  Secondly there is only one (quite strong) spring inside the English lock which forces the moving component to rub against the sides of the casing.

In the video there is a brief clip of my filing the rubbing surfaces of the moving component as well as the places on the casing where this component rubs.  It has made a marked difference.  The final adjustment needed is the addition of a second spring to balance the moving component so that it doesn’t rub so hard on the inside of the casing.

The springs on the Italian lock, combined, are not as strong as the single spring of the English lock.  This definitely gives the Italian lock a ‘lighter’ feel and my concern is that it would be easier for the Italian lock to open by accident.  It really doesn’t take much force to open it.

The Italian lock has a very simple mechanism and I am unable to assess which of the two locks would last longest.  The flat wire spring in the English lock may be a weak point but this is for the mechanism that locks the lock with the key.  I expect this function to be used minimally in most cases.  The locking mechanism on the Italian lock uses a ball bearing mounted on a small coil spring.  The mechanism depends on two indentations on the inside of the back plate to function properly.  This could be a potential weak spot but again, with minimal use this wouldn’t be a problem.

Another difference is the method of tethering components together.  The Italian one uses screws whereas the English one doesn’t.  If any of the screws came undone then the results would be complete failure.

There are some cosmetic differences too although the two locks differ in that one is chrome plated while the other is lacquered.  I recall that the English made lacquered locks have a slightly more refined finish.  The Italian lacquered lock shows feint polishing marks which are q little prominent when light is reflected off the surface.

Another big difference between the two locks is method of manufacture.  The English lock is mostly cast or pressed brass whereas the Italian one is machined, probably on a CNC machine.  The Italian lock looks more refined but the English lock feels more sturdy in use.  The back mechanism gets hidden anyway but the English has a bulkier mechanism casing on the rear that ends up taking more space inside the finished product.

At this point I would like to touch on a slightly unrelated topic which is the choice of lock by mass manufacturers of luxury leather goods.  I know of at least three manufacturers who have a reputation for the making the best luxury leather goods.  They all use the Italian made locks and hardware.  On the surface the Italian locks look good and as a mass producer there is not enough resource (time and budget) to allow for each lock to be modified to make it work better and for longer.  This is the obvious choice for the mass producer.  For all intense purposes the Italian lock will work perfectly for long enough.  However for someone like myself, making completely handmade leather goods to the highest standard possible, there is potentially some time for improving the English lock to provide the customer with the very best lock experience, short of what Naoyuki Komatsu does by making every lock by hand.  Something I aspire to do one day.

In conclusion it is quite difficult to determine, which lock would last longest.  I err on the side of the English lock.  However the Italian lock takes up less space inside the finished product.  The objective of this article is to find the best lock to use in my projects in terms of longevity and comfort of use.  For now, all things considered (availability, purchase quantity, made in England) the English lock will continue to be my choice and with some small modifications I believe that the English lock will be the superior one by far.