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.
Vegetable tanned leathers have a more natural look and feel. They will also patina—you’ll 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 high-end French and German tanneries, among others, employ combination tanning.
If you’re not too familiar with high quality leather, I recommend getting something made with vegetable tanned leather, as your initial foray into the good stuff. The look feel, and smell are quite special.
Along with smooth leather, there are a variety of textures available. Most of them are artificial—that is they are embossed onto the leather. Most patterns are made to emulate natural grain, but there are quite a few abstract patterns, as well. Two of the best known being Epsom and Saffiano.
The process of milling (tumbling) also has the effect of giving rich texture to the leather. Milling makes the leather softer, while embossing makes the leather firmer.
While embossing is widely employed in the production of cheap leathers, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Many high-end leathers are embossed. Just know that it won’t feel as natural, whereas milling the leather has the opposite effect.
Finishes range from none at all to heavy finishes that make the leather almost plastic-like. Tanneries that start with high quality hides have the luxury of using lighter finishes, and therefore producing a more natural and luxurious product. Lesser quality hides are dyed with the aid of pigments to cover up blemishes. Waxes are also widely employed to give the leather certain properties.
Aniline finishes, which preserve the natural beauty of the skin are among the most desirable. Pull-up leather is another popular finish, but with a more rugged aesthetic.
While cowhide is arguably the most important and versatile leather, there are many more options out there. Cowhide, pigskin, sheepskin, and goatskin are the most common. Of those, cowhide and goatskin have characteristics that make them far superior to the other two for most leather goods. And you don’t have to look any further if splurging for an exotic isn’t on the menu.
Products made from cowhide or goatskin can be remarkably resilient and last for many years. That said, there are many wonderful exotics that are both durable and beautiful to consider if you don’t mind paying the premium. Some of the most sought after leathers include: shell cordovan (equine rear-end), alligator, and ostrich.
The highest regarded leather is produced in just a handful of countries. Italy and France top the list with rich tanning traditions, and many tanneries outputting great leather. Japan, Germany, the UK, and the US, also have several tanneries producing excellent quality products.
Making the right leather choice depends on not only the item you’re purchasing, but the nature of its usage and what look and feel you’re after.
Looking for a luxurious and refined option? Opt for an aniline leather from France or Italy. Prefer a more rugged look? American or Italian pull-up leathers might fit the bill. Those living in rainy climates might consider English bridle or an embossed leather. Looking for maximum patina? Hard to beat traditional Japanese pit-tanned veg tans or Italian vacchetta. Want the most natural feel available? Choose a milled leather.
Whatever your choice, you’re in for a treat opting for a product made of quality leather and will likely have something to treasure for years to come.