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Leather for purses and bags is locally sourced.
SBJ photo by Christine Temple
Leather for purses and bags is locally sourced.

Made in the Ozarks: Waterwheel Leather Co.

Posted online

Out of the third bay of his Ozark garage, John Seawright is realizing a 30-year-old dream. There, he crafts purses, bags and furniture from locally sourced leather. Each piece is hand-stitched with care and precision. He says leatherwork is a craft that takes time and patience, and he’s following a past teacher’s mantra: Smooth is fast.

He says sales have doubled in recent years, but the true paycheck comes when he sees a person’s face light up when they hold their one-of-a-kind creation.

SBJ: What are your core products?
John Seawright: Women’s handbags and travel bags. For men: belts, wallets and I’m working on a briefcase right now. And then there’s the whole custom side – chairs, automotive interior, high-end shotgun case, refurbish.

SBJ: When did you start working with leather?
Seawright: I started when I was in the eighth grade in an industrial arts class. That would have been 1987 in the panhandle of Oklahoma. I just thought it was the coolest thing. It was a good 30 years before I would ever pick it back up. I had a whole other career of design and engineering and construction, and I was a police officer and lived overseas and worked for Carnegie Mellon University.

SBJ: What are the challenges and opportunities of making a product in the Ozarks?
Seawright: I have a luxury item, and so the market is tight in the people who can afford or would want to buy it. I do not mass-produce anything. It gives exclusivity. People go after something that other people physically cannot get.

SBJ: Where do you source your materials?
Seawright: I will try my hardest to use local. The bulk of my leather comes from Springfield Leather and Tandy Leather. My stamps come from Phillips Engraving.

SBJ: What was your driving factor to start this business?
Seawright: We were living in the Middle East, and my wife got recruited to come back here to teach at Missouri State [University]. I was a police officer, and when we went to the Middle East I was a director of safety and security. It was the seedy underbelly of the world. When we moved back, I wanted nothing to do with that career. I’ve always had this passion, and there comes a time and a place in a person’s life that either you do it and it becomes a reality or you don’t and it stays a fantasy.

SBJ: Biggest successes and biggest mistakes so far?
Seawright: How to run a business – to actually do it yourself and then it actually makes money. That’s my biggest success. Mistakes? I make them daily. Leather is extremely unforgiving. I have ruined some almost completed products.

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