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 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).
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 considered 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 brittle finish to degrade.
The drawbacks are that it will soil more easily and that the color may darken as it ages.
Semi-aniline leather, by definition, allows for the use 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 quite 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 long-term wear as well as aniline or semi-aniline leather.
The vast majority of animal hides and skins used for leather are byproducts of the meat industry. Unsurprisingly, the most common leathers come from cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats.
Of these, the 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 is not 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 any further for a durable and luxurious material.
That said, there is no shortage of other leather types worthy of consideration. Some of the most sought after include: shell cordovan, alligator & crocodile, python, and ostrich.
For exotic leathers like crocodile or shark, eye-catching texture is the norm. For leathers like cowhide, on the other hand, texture comes about in two ways. One is by milling (tumbling) the leather, which gives 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.
*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. Italy and France top the list with rich tanning traditions and and a thriving modern industry. Japan, Germany, and the UK are also of note, each having several tanneries 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 these 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, look to France and Germany for elite quality. French and German calfskin, as well as chèvre (goatskin) are excellent options.
Willing to stretch your budget? Exotic leathers are a tantalizing choice.
Whatever 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.