When You Want to Give Someone the Whole World


— On an overcast morning in late October, Peter Bellerby stood over a large, recently varnished globe that traced the travel routes of famous explorers. Somewhere in the South Atlantic, a giant squid wrapped its tentacles around an old sailing ship. And a hand-painted pair of miniature turtles meandered across the Equator.

“We often lay them on the meridian line,” said Mr. Bellerby, 56, founder of the artisanal globe making company Bellerby & Co., as he peered through his glasses at the turtles. “It looks fun to have them walking along there.”

Such illustrations are a key feature of the company’s bespoke, handcrafted globes, Mr. Bellerby said. Commissions regularly feature personal illustrations and elements freighted with meaning: travel routes, portraits, hometowns and homes, and pets. One Hong Kong customer, for example, had images of his four dogs piloting biplanes, scarves flying around their necks, while the fifth was floating in a parachute.

This spring, the company produced an ice age globe for an ice age ecologist, complete with a mammoth and a giant ground sloth (like many of Bellerby’s globes, it was commissioned as a gift). And in July, it finished an 80-centimeter globe, or 2.6 feet in diameter, as cartographers would have drawn it in 1846, based on a map from the period and styled as a globe would have been at the time. It is soon to be delivered to Texas in a 5-foot-square crate.

“People really love the idea of it because it’s so rare these days to have something that is bespoke and fully for you,” Mr. Bellerby said. “People buy these knowing that it’s going to mean something to them and all their family.”

The website’s testimonials page is filled with notes that seem to support his belief: “The level of detail in the drawings is just exquisite,” said A. D-G., from the Netherlands. “Thank you so much to the entire team for this beautiful piece of craftsmanship. We will enjoy and cherish this globe for many, many years.”(“We don’t ask people for testimonials. They write to us,” said Mr. Bellerby.)

The company won’t disclose names, but Mr. Bellerby said the clientele has included heads of state, presidents, prime ministers, royalty and Hollywood (three were used in the film “Hugo”). Even the Louvre has commissioned a copy of a celestial globe almost 4 meters, or 13 feet, in diameter, made for Louis XIV in 1683 by the Italian cartographer and globe maker Vincenzo Coronelli. The reproduction will be based on a set of original copper plates, still in the museum’s possession, and, while funding has delayed the project, the completed globe is to hang in one of the Louvre’s grand stairwells.

Prices and production times for the company’s celestial, terrestrial and moon globes vary: The most popular globe, with a 22-centimeter diameter, starts at 1,349 pounds ($1,830) and takes about six weeks to complete. The largest, called the Churchill and with a 127-centimeter diameter, starts at £80,000 and usually takes about a year.

Bellerby’s sells almost exclusively online — the wait list is now three to six months — although it has a stock of about 20 small globes that could be ready for Christmas and there is a limited selection in Harrods’ Great Writing Room and the luxury gift and home accessory store Linley, both in London.

Mr. Bellerby founded the company in 2008, after he couldn’t find what he called a “beautiful” globe as an 80th birthday gift for his father, a naval architect. “I only set this up as a hobby to make something for my dad,” said Mr. Bellerby, whose previous careers included working in television rights and property development and helping with the debut and operation of a retro-themed nightclub. “I assumed it would all be over in three to four months.”

Instead, figuring out how to make globes became a two-year project of trial and error with costs that rose into six figures. “I was making six to 10 globes every week and throwing them away,” said Mr. Bellerby, who worked in his living room at the time.

Today, Bellerby believes itself to be one of only a handful of bespoke, handcrafted globe companies in the world (others include Lander & May and Greaves & Thomas), and prides itself on maps that are entirely up-to-date. (Of Bellerby’s 25 staff members, two are full-time cartographers.)

The company is housed in a North London warehouse studio, a light-filled warren of stairs and mezzanines, filled from floor to ceiling in some spots with globes in varying stages of completion. And while Mr. Bellerby was happy to have a visitor, he kept some details of the production process to himself, for competitive reasons.

Seated amid the studio’s decorative assemblage of antique furniture, potted plants and taxidermy, the company’s two cartographers use computers running graphic software to revise and personalize the company’s master map. They add any bespoke lettering and the images that already had been drawn by the company’s part-time illustrator.

Each rendering is a snapshot of history. The world’s physical features are constantly changing, with ice shelves breaking and volcanic eruptions creating new land masses. But there also are geopolitical issues: Russian customers want Crimea depicted as part of Russia; Morocco doesn’t recognize Western Sahara. Mr. Bellerby said some of the company’s globes have been destroyed by Chinese customs officials because of the way Taiwan was depicted and by Indian customs officials over border concerns.

Once satisfied, the cartographers divide and print a map as gores — long, thin, almond-shaped strips of paper — on one of their two wide-format printers. It takes, for example, 12 gores for a 22-centimeter globe.

Workers, called “makers,” use scalpels to cut the edges of each gore to within a 10th of a millimeter and then painters, seated near a wall of large windows, apply two to eight washes of Schmincke watercolor paints to the oceans and seas. Jars of cloudy paint bearing labels such as “mint green sea” are dotted along their work tables.

Colors are mixed by hand in batches and, in case of smudges or scratches, stored for about a month, said Isis Linguanotto, the head painter. “We have all the recipes of everything we’ve done.”

The globes’ spherical cores are made of glass-reinforced plastic or resin by Bellerby’s suppliers, and delivered to the workshop. Once the paint is dry on a set of gores, makers dip the strips in water before gluing them, from the North Pole to the South Pole, around a sphere. Extremely fragile when wet, a gore can rip, bubble or tear at any moment.

And there is no margin for error: Gores must be perfectly aligned.

Such precision requires time to master. For a maker, learning how to complete a small globe can take a year, and learning to make all the sizes takes four, Mr. Bellerby said.

And teamwork is essential. “We have to have a good relationship with each other,” said Eddy Da Silva, a veteran maker, noting that each of the approximately 700 globes that the company produces in a year is passed back and forth by at least five people in the production process.

Once the gores are on, a globe is returned to the painters who shade its continents and add detail to its printed illustrations. (“That’s when the whole thing comes to life,” Mr. Bellerby said.) Then it goes back to a maker, who, after confirming all is correct, glues on the calottes, the circles of paper map placed over the poles. (“If anything’s wrong at that stage — back to Square 1,” Mr. Da Silva said.) These are then painted, and the entire globe varnished with either a gloss or matte finish.

Finally, the globe goes downstairs to the wood workshop, where the team of woodworkers mount it on one of the company’s range of stands or bases.

For all the labor intensive and repetitive nature of the work, it doesn’t get boring, Ms. Linguanotto said. Though she has been painting the world for almost nine years, it still “feels like a book that you read over and over again,” she said. “And you notice things that you didn’t before.”



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