Different leathers can have quite different characteristics. Here are five key things to differentiate when choosing your next piece.
Tanning is the process of turning animal hides and skins into leather. There are two main 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.
*The vast majority of mineral tanned leathers are tanned using chromium salts (chrome tanned leather).
Finish is central to how a leather looks, feels, and ages. There are three basic types:
The least natural and most resistant finish is pigmented. It can be thought of like painted leather. The surface is completely obscured by pigment. The benefits of this finish is the ability to produce bright and uniform colors. The finish also provides excellent protection against water, scratches, and the like. The drawbacks are the plastic-y feel and the eventual degradation of the finish over time.
The most natural and luxurious finish is aniline. It, on the other hand, uses transparent dye, so the surface of the leather is completely visible. Because of the lack of pigment, aniline leather is much more supple and the natural look and feel of the leather can be much better enjoyed. The drawbacks are that it can soil more easily due to lack of a protective finish. On the plus side, there’s also no finish to crack over the years.
Lastly, there is the semi-aniline finish. As you might have guessed, it’s in between the other two. It has some pigment, but it does not completely obscure the surface. It’s more resistant than aniline leather, yet more luxurious than pigmented. Many of the best known leathers from luxury makers are, in fact, semi-aniline leather.
The vast majority of animal hides and skins are byproducts of the meat industry. Unsurprisingly, the most common leathers come from cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. Of these, leather coming from cattle and goats, being both durable and attractive, is best in most cases.
As for the other two, pigskin’s main shortcoming is that the grain is quite porous, which is widely found to be undesirable. Whereas sheepskin, although quite luxurious, simply isn’t very durable.
Products made from cowhide (and calfskin) or goatskin can be remarkably resilient and endure for many years. And there’s no need to look further for a durable and luxurious material.
That being said, there is certainly no shortage of other tantalizing leather options. Some of the most sought after include shell cordovan, alligator, python, and ostrich.
For exotic leather like crocodile or sharkskin, eye-catching texture is the norm. For other leathers like cowhide, texture is typically more muted. There are two ways that texture is greatly enhanced, however. One is by milling (tumbling) the leather, which gives it rich, albeit inconsistent texture. The other is by embossing a pattern onto the leather. Often a pattern that emulates natural grain is used, but other prints are popular, too.
Milling makes the leather softer, while embossing it, makes it firmer.
Textured leathers, especially of the embossed variety, resist wear like scratches much better than smooth leathers.
*Two popular prints you may recognize are Saffiano and “Epsom”.
The production of the highest regarded leather is concentrated in just a handful of countries, which is dominated by Western Europe. Especially France and Italy. Japan and the US are also of note, having at least a handful of highly regarded tanneries to their credit. While there are many fine tanneries dotted about the globe, chances are you will find the nicest examples in the aforementioned regions.
Tannage, finish, species, and texture all impact how the leather looks, feels, and ages. And where the leather is produced can give a big clue in determining quality.
Keeping this information in mind, let’s explore a few well-known leathers to suit various tastes.
For a classic looking smooth leather that feels and smells great. Look to vegetable tanned cowhide and shell cordovan. Many of the nicest examples can be found from Japanese and Italian tanneries. From Japan, there’s Shinki-Hikaku and Leder Ogawa shell cordovan, as well as traditional cowhide from Tochigi and Shonan. In Italy, there are a multitude of tanneries in the Santa Croce region. Some of the best known of these are Conceria Walpier, La Bretagna, and Badalassi Carlo. Because these leathers are vegetable tanned and (mostly) have an aniline finish, you can expect to see considerable patina. Colors will darken and the leather will absorb character from use.
Another smooth leather that is excellent is English bridle. While having similar characteristics to the Italian veg tans, it is hot stuffed with wax to provide protection against water. Naturally, the best options are found in England, including the superb JF&J Baker.
There’s also Museum Calf, which is mineral tanned calfskin from Italy. It is finer grained than the previously discussed cowhides and will patina much less readily.
From France, there’s Box Calf, which is a firm-tempered calfskin that’s quite popular for bags and shoes. There’s also the very highly renowned calfskins from Tanneries Haas and Degermann, Novonappa (aka Barenia) and Baranil, which are well-liked for their nice hand, matte finish, and excellent patina.
For a refined option that’s more colorfast and resistant to wear, goatskin and printed calfskin are obvious choices. Look to France and Germany for elite quality. For goatskin, there is Alran, Relma, and Jullien in France. And for calfskin there is Perlinger and Weinheimer in Germany or Haas, d’Annonay, Du Puy, Roux and Degermann in France. Most of these leathers employ a semi-aniline finish, making them more colorfast and resistant to scratches.
Willing to stretch your budget? Exotic leather is a tantalizing choice. Alligator and crocodile, ostrich, python, lizardskin, and sharkskin are all beautiful and durable options. The finest options are once again found in Italy, France, and Japan, as well as in Singapore and South Africa.
Choosing the type of leather that suits your taste not only in initial appearance, but how it ages, will go a long way in ensuring you will have an item to treasure for years to come.