Choosing Leather

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.

Shinki Shell Cordovan

Shell Cordovan from Shinki-Hikaku

La Bretagna Art. Deco

Milled vegetable tanned leather

1. Tannage

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.

 

2. Texture

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

Saffiano from French tannery, Alran

Badalassi Carlo Wax

Italian pull-up leather

3. Finish

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.

4. Animal

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.

Remy Carriat Lagun

Milled cowhide from French tannery, Remy Carriat

Leder Ogawa Cordovan

Aniline Shell Cordovan from Leder Ogawa

5. Origin

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.

Wrap-up

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.

How to buy a leather wallet that lasts

Getting a good quality leather wallet isn’t as simple as spending more.

Most mainstream options, regardless of price, use cheap materials and construction and degrade rapidly.

How do you distinguish the good from the bad? Here’s what to look for.

1. All leather construction.

If you peep down the pockets of just about any random leather wallet, you’ll see the number one reason why they don’t last–synthetic fabric. Most “leather” wallets in actuality are cloth wallets covered with cheap leather.

2. Excellent quality leather

This can be quite difficult to determine, but luckily there are some clues to light the way.

Makers that use the good stuff won’t hide it. Information about where the leather comes from, what type of tannage, and finish are all good signs. Absence of this information often indicates low or middling quality.

The finest leather generally comes from Italy, France, the UK, the US, Germany, and Japan. Buying leather produced in one of these countries increase the odds that you’re getting top tier quality.*

3. Burnished or painted edges

Burnished or painted edges are not only essential to protect the edges from fraying and premature wear, but elevate the looks of the product considerably.

Most products are finished poorly, if at all, as a proper edge takes careful planning, skill, and a lot of time to execute properly.

Quality features tend to go together. It doesn’t make sense to skimp on leather if you’re going to construct a wallet well, and in turn, excellent leather doesn’t really belong in a poorly made product. 

Where to buy

There are many very talented makers out there producing fantastic wallets with top of the line materials and construction. They have taken the time to develop skill and offer a quality and value than just cannot be matched by bigger companies. Buy from one of them, and you’ll have a wallet that not only will last, but look great, for years. I’d suggest finding a maker through social media that jibes well with you.

*Below I’ve listed the countries that produce the highest regarded leather, as well as some of the better known tanneries and products to come out of each.

Italy

Italy is chock-full of tanneries, but perhaps it’s best known for its vegetable tanned leather. And there’s no better example of this than those tanneries that are part of the Consorzio Vera Pelle (Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium). Some of the member tanneries include: Badalassi Carlo (makers of Pueblo and Minerva Box), Conceria Walpier (makers of Buttero), La Bretagna, La Perla Azzurra (makers of Dakota), and Tempesti.

France

Thanks to an extensive luxury leather goods industry, French tanneries offer an elite selection of leathers. The most well-known ones, in contrast to Italy, are chrome tanned, with exemplary examples of calf and goatskin leathers.

Tanneries Haas, Degermann, Du Puy, and D’Annonay are well-known for their calf leathers, including printed calf (e.g. “Epsom”). Remy Carriat is a wonderful example of taurillon leather.

Tanneries Alran, Relma, and Jullien are best known for their goatskin (chèvre).

Germany

German tanneries are fewer in number, but the quality of the products are at least as well regarded as their French counterparts. The most well-known are Weinheimer and Perlinger which focus on calfskin.

United Kingdom

The UK is best known for its bridle leather. J&FJ Baker is perhaps the highest regarded of the bunch with a 1 year+ traditional oak bark tanning. Clayton and J.E. Sedgwick are other highly regarded producers of bridle and other leathers.

Japan

Japan has a very healthy tanning industry. Their best known leathers are all traditional pit-tanned leathers. Of which, Shinki-Hikaku is probably the best known thanks to their beautiful cordovan. Whereas, Shonan and Tochigi are also highly prized for their veg tan cowhide.

United States

The tanning industry isn’t quite it once was, but there still are at least a handful of tanneries making the good stuff. The best known by far, of course, is Horween. They are best known for their shell cordovan and Chromexcel® leathers. Other tanneries of note are Hermann Oak and Wickett & Craig.