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 more readily—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 patterns are known as 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 great leathers are embossed.
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 rely on pigments in dyeing and finishing to cover up blemishes and give more uniformity to the leather. Waxes are also widely employed to give the leather certain properties.
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, patina more quickly since it’s not given a protective finish. Semi-aniline leather is an excellent compromise as it retains much of its natural look and feel, but is lightly finished to slow its ageing down. Pull-up leather, which also uses aniline dyes in addition to wax, 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, all have at least a few tanneries producing excellent leather, as well.
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 or semi-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 or humid climates might consider English bridle or another waxy leather. Looking for maximum patina? Hard to beat traditional Japanese pit-tanned veg tans or Italian vacchetta. Prefer little to no patina instead? A French or German embossed are classy options. Want the most natural feel available? Milled leather is your choice.
Whatever your leather you end up with, 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.