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 mineral*.
Vegetable tanning uses organic materials that contain tannins, like tree bark. The resulting leather looks and feels quite natural and will continue to develop character as it ages. Expect to see colors become darker and textures become smoother over time.
Mineral tanned leathers, instead use, mineral salts and are generally softer, allow colors that are more vibrant, and are more resistant to water and scratches.
It’s also not uncommon to combine the two.
*Mineral tanned leathers are widely referred to as “chrome tanned” due to the prevalence of using chromium salts.
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 other prints are popular, as well.
Milling makes the leather softer, while embossing makes it firmer.
Saffiano from French tannery, Alran
Italian pull-up leather
There are three basic types of finishes: aniline, semi-aniline, and pigmented.
Aniline leather employs water-based dye to best express the natural beauty of the skin. The very best hides are typically selected and the resulting leather is among the most desirable.
The advantages of aniline leather are that it has the most natural look and most luxurious feel. It also tends to fare the best over a long period of time, since there’s no heavy finish to degrade.
The disadvantages are that it will soil more easily and the color will darken as it ages.
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. It has better color fastness and uniformity 2. There is better 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.
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. And 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 types of leathers worthy of consideration. Some of the most sought after include: shell cordovan, alligator & crocodile, python, 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 and 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.