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.
For common leathers, like cowhide, texture comes about in basically two ways. One is by milling (tumbling) the leather, which can give it rich (albeit inconsistent) texture. The other is by embossing (or printing) a pattern onto the leather. Typically a pattern that emulates natural grain is used, but abstract patterns are possible, too.
Milling makes the leather softer, while embossing makes it 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. On the plus side, since there’s no finish to degrade, it will typically fare the best over a long period of time.
Semi-aniline leather, by definition, can be dyed and or finished with the aid of pigments provided the natural surface of the skin is still visible. Compared to aniline leather, there are typically a few differences: 1. The color is more uniform and will darken more slowly 2. There is better short-term resistance to water and scratches 3. The feel is not as supple and luxurious.
Pigmented leather is the most resistant, but least natural feeling finish. The natural surface of the skin isn’t visible and the color is uniform. 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 also some subcategories of these types of finishes. One popular example is pull-up leather, 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 another luxurious choice that’s both durable and attractive.
As for pigskin, the grain is quite porous and doesn’t make its way into many fine leather goods. Whereas sheepskin’s shortcoming is that it is far more fragile than the other three.
Products made from cowhide, calfskin or goatskin can be remarkably resilient and endure for many years. And there’s no need to look any further for a durable and luxurious material.
That said, there are many other outstanding 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 and as well as a thriving modern industry. Japan, Germany, and the UK also have several tanneries each that produce some of the world’s finest leather. There are, of course, many fine tanneries dotted about the globe, but chances are you’ll find the nicest examples produced in one of the aforementioned regions.
So, what’s the best leather for you?
For leather that looks, feels, and smells great and 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 (i.e. slower patina), look to France and Germany for elite quality. French and German calfskin, as well as chèvre (goatskin) are 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.