Despite that your typical leather product is made with ultra-cheap leather, there are actually a ton of superb leathers out there.
Different kinds of leather can have very different characteristics.
Here are few key things to differentiate when choosing your next piece.
Shell Cordovan from Shinki-Hikaku
Milled vegetable tanned leather
Tanning is the process of turning animal hides into leather.
There are two basic types. Vegetable and chrome.
Vegetable tanned leathers have a natural look and feel and will typically develop a lot of character as they age (i.e. patina). Expect to see colors become darker and textures become smoother over time.
Chrome tanned leathers are generally softer, allow colors that are more vibrant, and are more resistant to water and scratches.
It’s also possible to combine tanning methods. Many well-known French and German tanneries, among others, employ combination tanning to get desirable characteristics from each.
Texture comes about in basically two ways. One is by milling (tumbling) the leather, which gives it rich texture. Milled leather’s grain isn’t uniform. It will look different on different portions of the hide.
More uniform texture can be achieved by embossing (or printing) a pattern onto the leather. Tanneries have various plates they can use to print different grains. Typically a plate that emulates natural grain is used, but there are many abstract ones as well. Some of the best known of these are Saffiano and Epsom.
Milling makes the leather softer, while embossing makes the leather firmer.
Saffiano from French tannery, Alran
Italian pull-up leather
Finishes range from none at all to heavy finishes that make the leather almost plastic-like. Tanneries that begin with high quality hides (i.e. few blemishes) have the luxury of using lighter finishes, and therefore producing a more natural and luxurious product.
Aniline leather, which just employs water-based dye, preserves the natural beauty of the skin. The very best hides are typically selected and the resulting leather is among the most desirable. It will, however, soil more easily since it isn’t given a protective finish.
Semi-aniline leather, in contrast, can be dyed and or finished with the aid of pigments provided the natural surface of the skin is still visible. The best examples are an excellent compromise as they retain much of their natural look and feel, but are more resistant and easier to care for.
Pigmented leather is the most resistant, but least natural feeling. The natural surface of the skin isn’t visible. Pigmented leather typically resists short-term wear very well, but will not handle damage or long-term wear as well as a good quality aniline or semi-aniline leather.
There are several variations of these types of finishes. Pull-up leather is one of the most popular in recent years, which is an aniline leather that is given a waxy finish.
Animal hides are byproduct of the meat industry. Therefore, the most common leathers come from cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats.
Cowhide is arguably the most important and versatile of the bunch. Calfskin, while not as versatile as cowhide, is the chief leather used in fine footwear and many other luxury goods. Goatskin is also both durable and attractive and can be used to make many kinds of items.
On the other hand, pigskin is too porous, and sheepskin is too fragile.
Products made from cowhide, calfskin or goatskin can be remarkably resilient and last for many years. And you don’t have to look any further for beautiful and durable leather. That said, there is no shortage of other wonderful leathers. Some of the most sought after include: shell cordovan, alligator & crocodile, and ostrich.
Milled cowhide from French tannery, Remy Carriat
Aniline Shell Cordovan from Leder Ogawa
The production of the highest regarded leather is concentrated in just a handful of countries. Italy and France top the list with rich tanning traditions. Japan, Germany, and the UK also have several tanneries each that produce some of the world’s finest leather. There are, of course, many notable examples located outside these countries, such as Horween in the US, and Tanneries Masure in Belgium.
So, what’s the best leather for you?
For leather that looks, feels, and smells great that will develop a lot of character as it ages, look to vegetable tanned cowhide and shell cordovan. Many of the nicest examples are produced in Italy and Japan. Italian tanneries in the Santa Croce region, produce a multitude of beautiful veg tans, while Japan produces some of the finest traditionally pit-tanned cowhide and shell cordovan.
Looking for something a more rugged aesthetic? A pull-up leather might fit the bill. Excellent options can be found from Italian or American tanneries.
For a refined and luxurious option that is more resistant to wear, look to France and Germany for elite quality. French and German calfskin, as well as chèvre (French goatskin) are all excellent options.
Whatever leather you end up with, you’re in for a treat opting for a product made of proper leather and will likely have something to treasure for years to come.