A garment made of vicuña wool is so rare and so precious that it is highly unlikely that even the proverbial “gentleman who has everything” has ever heard of one or seen one, let alone worn one.
Vicuña wool is considered the world’s most costly textile: Based on 2018 pricing, a yard of it retails for approximately $5,000, a custom-tailored men’s suit typically priced between $30,000 and $50,000. Even a vicuña scarf can command prices of around $2,000. But for the few men who have ever had the pleasure of wearing a garment or accessory made of vicuña wool, it is worth every penny.
The vicuña (also spelled vicuna and vicugna), the animal that gives the precious textile its name, is a wild South American camelid that lives in the alpine regions of the Andes Mountains. It is a relative of the llama; is believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca; and like the closely related guanaco, has never been domesticated. Smaller, more graceful, and more delicate than the guanaco, the vicuña is native to Peru, northwestern Argentina, Bolivia, and northern Chile, living at altitudes of 3,200-4,800 meters (10,500-15,700 ft.) above sea level. (A small introduced population exists in Ecuador.) From head to tail, the animal measures about 5 ft., is about 3 ft. tall at its shoulders, and weighs on average less than 150 lbs.
By law, a vicuña can only be shorn every two years—after being rounded-up in the wild. Each year, in an event called a “chacu” (also spelled “chakku,” “chaccu”) that dates back to the Inca era, the vicuñas are herded, captured, and shorn. (Only animals with wool longer than 2.5 cm may be shorn.) Once shorn, the females and young males are released back into the wild. Old males, however, are slaughtered for their fleece and flesh.
The extraordinary warmth of vicuña wool is derived from tiny scales on the hollow, air-filled fibers, the scales causing the fibers to interlock, thereby trapping insulating-air. Vicuña wool fibers are amongst the finest in the world, comparable in diameter to that of the angora rabbit and the down-hair (underfur) of the chiru (the Tibetan antelope) that is used to weave the fabled (now infamous and internationally banned on account of traders killing the wild antelope to get is precious fur) shahtoosh shawl, so fine as to be able to pass through a wedding ring. Vicuña, for example, is noticeably finer than cashmere. [It is also much rarer and, correspondingly, much more expensive: While only 12 tons of vicuña wool that can be processed into yarn are produced annually worldwide, the tonnage of cashmere yarn is 25,000; likewise, 2 pounds of vicuña wool cost between $400 and $600, while a similar amount of cashmere costs $75-$85, with sheep’s wool running around $5-$6. Harrods of London sells pure vicuña sock by Falke’s for over $600 per pair. And while a cashmere sweater retails for around $1,000, a vicuña one demands $5,000. Vicuña wool is so fine that to place one’s hand into a sack of the sheared wool is like placing one’s hand into a sack containing nothing but soft, balmy air.] And since the wool is sensitive to chemical treatment, it is usually left in its natural golden-tan color, dubbed “the golden fleece.” (Modern manufacturers of the fabric have recently unlocked the secret for dyeing the textile into various fashion-colors.) But the animal yields small quantities—about one pound per animal per biennial harvest—of a very fine, soft, extremely warm wool. Hence, its justifiably high price. The Inca civilization (12th-16th century) so prized the wool—declared by Spanish conquistadors “the silk of the New World”—that it was against the law for anyone other than royalty to possess it. And according to Inca mythology, the vicuña was the reincarnation of a beautiful young maiden upon whom a coat of pure gold was bestowed when she acquiesced to the advances of an old, hideous king. Today, the vicuña is the national animal of Peru and is featured prominently in the country’s coat of arms.
The vicuña was protected under Inca law. And today, there are national and international regulations that safeguard the animal and its precious wool. But from the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532 until 1974 when the vicuña was officially declared an endangered species, the animal was largely unprotected, resulting in its being hunted and destroyed almost to the brink of extinction. (In 1824, Simón Bolivar[1783-1830], in his capacity as governor of Peru, banned the killing of the vicuña.) By the mid-1970s, only about 6,000 vicuñas remained. Part of the reason for the animal’s decline is that, because it lives in the wild, harvesters of the wool tended to shoot the docile creature then collect its precious wool rather than undergo the labor-intensive process that engages the services of hundreds or even thousands of people to form a “human ring” around a vicuña herd then slowly close-in on the animals to round-up the live animals, thereafter shearing them before releasing them back into the wild. In 1987, CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) declared that only wool obtained from living vicuña could legally sold. During the Inca era, it is estimated that 3,000,000 vicuñas roamed their Andean habitat. Today, as a result of local, national, and international efforts, the vicuña population is around 350,000. And the gentle animal remains on protected species lists.
The world’s foremost trader in luxurious vicuña wool, garments, and accessories made therefrom is the Italian firm of Loro Piana (www.LoroPiana.com ). Founded in the early 1800s by the Loro Piana family in Trivero, a district in northern Italy renowned for textile production, by the second half of the 19th century, the company had moved its operations to Valsesia, Italy, serving as merchants of wool. In the 1940s, the company, under the direction of Franco Loro Piana, began exporting its fine wool textiles, becoming world-famous for its production of cashmere and then, in the mid-1990s, vicuña. In 2013, LVHM (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), the Paris-based French multinational conglomerate of luxury goods, purchased 80% of Loro Piana for $2.25 billion. Today, the Loro Piana family, which has been in the wool business for six generations and over 200 years, owns 15% of the company.