Doe eyed, docile and delightful, vicunas are the epitome of a rare beauty that is otherwise on ample offer in the natural world but not so much on the premises of what the human motive wants to extract out of them in all their elegance. Endangered or at least threatened in their existence in the wild, this close relative of the llama might be striking sights of pretty exquisiteness but there’s more to their beauty than just meets the eye, or rather that meets the eye in an intensity that goes beyond their facial features.
The source of what is considered the world’s most expensive wool, in fact the most expensive natural fabric, the Vicuna wool, vicunas are a wild South American camelid that call the high alpine area of the Andes their home. Widely cherished for its luxurious wool, that looks and feels like a fluffy mound of cloud, soft and light and warm, this national animal of Peru commands an international reputation when it comes to the quality of the fiber it produces. Extremely fine wool that is produced in very small amounts, only about 0.5 kg per year by one vicuna, shorn only at intervals of three years, sold at an astronomical 500 dollars per kilo of unprocessed fiber, vicuna wool isn’t just the most expensive, it also is the finest of all wools that you can derive warmth from. Or maybe, you cannot.
Once the stuff exclusive to royalty, during the times of the Inca when the really luxurious wool was what used to dress up their kings and queens. In fact, vicuna wool was prized by the Incas during the times of the prominence in South American, in the pre Colombian era from around the thirteenth to the early sixteenth century. Believed to be the reincarnation of a young maiden who received a coat of pure gold, vicunas were prohibited from killing by the law even back then, a practice that has persisted till today, though with considerable disruptions. It however has been this ‘esteemed’ viewing of the vicuna of the animal as one reincarnated in a coat of gold that led its golden hued fur to be reserved for wear by the royalty. The allure of the superfine fleece of the animal extended also to times thereafter, and to other royal expanses as well, most notably evoking the intrigue of King Philip II of Spain in the 1500s, who used to sleep under an array of blankets made from vicuna wool. In fact so enchanting had been the slumber that one of the greatest monarchs ever in history enjoyed with those layers of warmth mounted on him that made the conquistadors refer to the vicuna wool as the ‘silk of the New World’. This very fascination with the superior quality of the fabric also however spelled somewhat of a doom for its host animal as they began to be hunted heavily by the Spanish in order to gain access to its luxurious fur as well as its meat, a practice that continued unto the following 100s of years, pushing the exotic species to the brink of extinction with just some 6000 individuals remaining by the 1960s as compared to a few million some couple of centuries back.
What made Vicuna wool so favored an item of luxury that enjoyed exclusive prevalence among the royal classes had undoubtedly been its soft feel and lightweight essence but the warmth attributable as well to this expensive fabric perhaps is of more concern to the animal. Dwelling at altitudes of some 15000 feet in an environment that is subject to extreme climatic variations, the warmth of the vicuna’s fur is a natural mechanism that helps the animal regulate its body heat in freezing Andean temperatures. No wonder it is today so coveted as a medium from which the finest quality socks and scarves and jackets and coats and suits and blankets and throws are crafted, deriving from such properties that come from the tiny scales on the hollow, air-filled fibres enabling them to interlock and trap insulating air. Add to this also its prominence as the finest natural fiber in the world, measuring just 12 microns in diameter across its every fiber and in the Vicuna wool, you encounter a world of superfine luxury that overrides very easily even the more than conventional charm of the cashmere and the extraordinary qualities of merino wool. The finest fiber therefore than can ever be spun, this is a wool that feels indeed like a luxurious blend of superfine silk threads, making it both exquisitely coveted and mind bogglingly expensive.
The Vicuna wool is also left as natural as it is obtained from the underbelly of the animal, in its characteristic hues that range from a related warm amber to honey to cinnamon to caramel, since it is sensible to chemical treatment meaning that all products made of the softest fabric on earth are also as natural as could be. This color spectrum also denotes something of the significance that Vicuna wool has come to embody, as an element of fashion catering to the realms of the haute couture, in exclusivity as well as in luxury. In its gossamer glow and stupefyingly sensational feel, be it in texture or weight, the vicuna wool beats hands down even the most exceptional of fabrics to lay hands on, to wrap yourself in a warmth that is more than palpable enough to drench you in an aura akin to royalty.
Interestingly though, the exceptional properties of this luxurious wool extends also to an ambit associated with it that is not explored very often, at least in the realms of high end fashion that seeks to cater to what can be interpreted as the mindless indulgence in style and status over sustainability. Following the unhindered Spanish hunt of the vicunas that which led it to be listed as an endangered species in 1974, prohibiting therefore the trade in their wool, the approach adopted by the Peruvian government towards the conservation of its national animal is notable not just in protection of the species but also in their consciously concerted efforts to enable the yield of the Vicuna wool for purposes that might be entirely aesthetic or fashionable or even residing in the societal and status linked affiliation for luxury. The Pampa Galeras – Barbara D’Achille nature conservatory for the protection of the vicuna was set up during 1964- 66 by the the Servicio Forestal y de Caza in cooperation with the US Peace Corps, Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and the National Agrarian University of La Molina that achieved success by increasing the estimated population of the camelid to 75,000 through the protective mechanism of game wardens.
In 1979, the efforts to protect the vicuna population from extinction received further impetus with the signing of the Convention on the Conservation and Management of the Vicuna between Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina that recognized effectiveness of letting the vicuna sustain as an existence in the wild. Mandated a protected species under the law that which allows only for the shearing of the animal for the highly prized wool, it is illegal today to kill any member of the species unlike the rampant hunting practices that had threatened the population since after the decline of the Inca Empire in 1553.
But the more remarkable development came some one and a half decades later when in 1994 the International Vicuna Consortium created by the Peruvian government was joined by three companies namely, Loro Piana, Agnona and Incalpaca TPX as a means to extract the wool of the Vicuna and trade in it, both through extremely humane and sustainable means. More therefore in its fashion leanings, continuing though with the conservation of the animal that produces the most expensive natural fabric, had been this attempt by the global community to ensure that the business prospects of the vicuna wool does not slip into antiquity. In this regard, even more prominent a mention has to be one that stems from the iconic Italian fashion brand Zegna, courtesy its founder Ermenegildo Zegna whose desire to churn out the most luxurious of natural fabrics produced from only the most superior quality of Peruvian vicuna wool has led him to initiate the Vicuna project. Through this development, Zegna is committed to maximize the availability of water facilities within the community that rears the exotic animal, improving not just the survival and reproduction prospects of the species but also consequently bettering the lifestyle of the Picotaini people.
But while modern day practices have been drawn upon to protect the Vicuna and enable the luxurious reclining in the warmth of the many products churned out from the superfine wool of this superfine animal, the tradition of protection still essentially is one that has its roots in the Inca empire, in that period of time in history when the Vicuna itself was not as much of a rarity. Called the Chaccu, the Incas revered this animals as royalty itself, and therefore took care to ensure that they weren’t harmed in any way even when extracting their wool. The tradition saw great herds of Vicuna rounded up by the local populace into previously laid funnel traps every four years where they used to be sheared and then released again into the wild. Today, the custom continues through a government sanctioned chaccu that mandates similar adhering to the ‘demands’ of a species that is generally fearful, while continuing to serve exquisite human interests that seek pleasure in nothing but the best. The lightest, warmest, softest and the most luxurious, most expensive, most lustrous fabric in the world, the Vicuna Wool indeed boasts a lineage that is no less royal than its utterly royal feel.