Animal Skin Guide

Introduction

A company specializing in the production of high-end leather goods should have a deep knowledge of the peculiarities, distinguishing characteristics and advantages of the various leathers and their quality.

We hope to convey this knowledge to our clients in a simple, easy-to-understand manner, so as to enable an accurate assessment not only of our products, but also for any future leather purchases.

Many of our leather products are natural skins (not to be confused with eco-leather or synthetic fabrics made to look natural), used in many different ways: belts, bags, wallets, shoes, and so on. Some are more precious for their rarity, difficulty in obtaining or craftsmanship; however, often it is the quality differences that are more difficult to assess.

Calfskin

By far the most common and widely used animal skin is the calf. It may come from various mountainous areas and, depending on its upbringing, diet and various particularities of the area, the animal takes on different characteristics, which can be seen in the animal’s coat.

A cow that is provided with proper nutrition and is not subjected to stress from intensive farming will not only produce excellent quality meat but also yield a smoother, more elastic skin.

The Baranil for example, is considered one of the most valuable calfskins. Bred in the wild of the Alps in northern Italy, this particular species provides a distinctly smooth coat without any obvious defects or evidence of trauma.

Full Grain & Crust

The first layer of the skin surface is the dermis, which is discarded. Right below the dermis is the most valuable layer of the calfskin, called the full grain. By definition it is natural and has not been treated or thinned; thus, it is composed of stronger fibers, giving it a more durable overall quality. The thickness of the grain, however, may vary depending on its intended use.

Full grain is free of any obvious defects (except those which are naturally occurring), and exhibits a distinct breathability. Lower quality leather, on the other hand, may have been chemically treated or buffed, which obstructs the natural porous nature of the grain and results in a more plastic-like feel.

Going deeper we find what is commonly known as the “crust”, which is the least valuable part and is characterized by its rigidity. If appropriately treated, the resulting product can be very appealing. It can also be easily printed on with designs of other leathers and is often used for clothing and accessories.

The full grain can be classified as first choice, second and so on until the fifth choice. The difference is in the quality and uniformity of the leather and the presence or absence of obvious natural flaws which in the third, fourth and fifth choice skins are corrected (the full grain is partially repaired). In the processing of these lower quality products used by many manufacturers, the defects are completely rectified by coating the skin with a layer of PVC or other polymers that give it a homogeneous and uniform tone. Therefore, a product that at first glance appears to be first choice may have actually been of much lower quality in its original state.

Buff Leather

Buff leather for belts and leather goods is not buffalo (this mistake is found in many different books) but it is tanned from cow hides and sanded by machine to obtain a smooth even surface.

The main reason for the removal of the grain is to assist in the penetration of cod oil into the skin, which would be more resistant if the skin was retained and would not penetrate equally, thus leaving the centre raw.

Afterwards the skins are hung in dry heated rooms under gradually increasing temperature. This causes the oils to oxidise into the tissue of the hide and crates the stable tannage. They are then washed in hot soda solution and the excess oil removed.

Buff is a stable, dense and supple leather, stretch resistant and almost waterproof. It is ideal for belts, wallets and medium or small leather goods.

Intrecciato

Intrecciato is the ancient technique of interweaving/twisting stripes of buff vegetable traditional Tuscan leather used in the Venetian area (Veneto) since the late 60’s. The beautiful design is given by three or four raw cut stripes, in classic colors, which are then hand skived according to the ancient traditions.

Our intrecciato leather goods feature few leather strips hand waxed and braided together with great mastery.

Tanning

Another factor is the tanning, or the treatment to which the skins are subjected to for the purposes of storage and processing. It is a complex process that has a long history and is crucial to the final result.

The most commonly used system is that of chrome tanning, with which can allow the skin to be used for almost any purpose. It’s a quick process (usually within 24 hours although some variations may take longer) in which the skin is placed in trivalent chromium. However, some extensive processing is required beforehand in order to prepare the raw material for this type of treatment. This process renders the material soft and supple to the touch and makes it possible to obtain a consistent color in the leather.

Vegetable tanning, on the other hand, is a much more traditional tanning process. Taking place in large wooden drums, the transformation of the leather relies on the slow passage of time (up to tens of days). It has no harmful effects on the environment and uses natural vegetable tannins (complex substances derived from plants such as chestnut, mimosa, oak and other sources). While high quality vegetable tanning is disappearing in most areas, many skilled Italian craftsmen continue to practice the technique. Because the tannins are natural, each leather product is unique and the resulting colors are rich and warm tones.

Both systems have different characteristics and qualities inherent to the tannery that implements them; however, they still may not yield a usable product because, after this stage is completed, the skin will then be subjected to further processing some of which may include dyeing, finishing, drying, waterproofing and in some cases an additional tanning cycle.

Finishes

An aniline finish is a complex treatment during which the skin is soaked in aniline dyes in large rotating steel drums. The dyes are translucent and allow the skin to maintain its natural look. The intensity of the colors may vary slightly according to how well the hide absorbs the dyes. This finish highlights the full grain itself as well as the imperfections, which create distinct markings that embellish the final product. No subsequent pigment or clear coat finish is applied.

Hides treated with an aniline finish are extremely delicate, require continuous maintenance and have a low resistance to light. For this reason, it is preferable to treat the skin with a semi-aniline finish. The full aniline and semi-aniline tanning processes begin in the same way; however, when the hide quality is slightly lower the semi-aniline process is used: the hide is delicately sanded and then a thin clear film or pigmented finish is applied. This serves to create a more uniform aspect, and bring out its natural pores. It also hides any small imperfections, and gives the skin a greater resistance to light, tearing and stains.

Therefore, it is that not only the type of skin and the quality of the hide itself, but also the treatments and subsequent processing have a crucial impact before the hide reaches the master craftsman and the final product is created.

A separate guide will cover the various types of skin cuts in more depth. For each individual skin type there will be explanations on the following: how the grain pattern varies according to the part of the animal used, the softness of the leather, the quality (just as certain cuts of meat can be more appetizing than others, there are also certain cuts that are more valuable for making leather products), and its intended uses.

Caiman, Crocodile & Alligator

When we talk about crocodile (Crocodylia), we typically don’t go into much detail; however, in reality there are some distinctions to be made between the three reptiles of origin: crocodiles, alligators and caiman.

Caiman Fuscus Belt

Caiman Fuscus Belt

Caiman or Caiman fuscus is the most common type of crocodile. Because it is more attainable compared to crocodile and alligator leather, it typically has a lower associated cost. Mainly found in North and Central America, the animal itself is generally smaller in size (rarely exceeding 2m) and is therefore often used for wallets and accessories. The skin consists of more rigid scales, a stiffer structure and a more prominent bone appearance on its back. However, thanks to its smaller size it is particularly suitable for certain types of processing.

On the other hand, considered second in value and cost only to alligator, crocodile skin is characterized by darker scales on its back and lighter scales on its belly. The scales are rectangular, uniformly sized and consistently have about a 1” width. The skin is very pliable and durable, making it a highly valued material. The animal can reach about 7 meters in length and are mainly found near the equator and in wetlands.

Species Origin
Crocodile Siamensis Southeast Asia
Crocodile Porosus India, Indochina and Australia
Crocodile Niloticus Sub-Saharan Africa
Alligator Mississippiensis USA (most common: Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas)
Alligator Sinensis Eastern China

Crocodile is the exotic material of choice for the high-end product lines of many designers such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Burberry, Versace, and Hermes. Because of its high quality, rarity, and beautiful leather veins, crocodile is a more expensive skin.

Alligator belly leather

Alligator belly leather

Although it is often difficult to identify the differences to the untrained eye, the crocodile and alligator have some distinguishing characteristics. While the crocodile has more rectangular-shaped scales, those of the alligator are more square-shaped. Furthermore, the crocodile’s medium-sized scales change gradually as you move from its centerline to the hips, shrinking slightly and becoming more rounded in shape. On the other hand, the alligator’s scales are much larger on the centerline of the belly and become abruptly smaller towards the hips. The alligator is also distinguished by a shorter head and more narrow, webbed feet. Although common in North and South America, the alligators coming from Louisiana and Mississippi are particularly valuable due to their skin quality.

Various Cuts

Nubuck Alligator Flank

Nubuck Alligator Flank

The cut of these animals varies greatly depending on its usage. The scale pattern can also change greatly and often splices are necessary for the realization of an article. The craftsmanship in this case is extremely important when one must splice together multiple pieces with well-concealed joints in order to prevent a noticeable difference in the texture.

The skins are treated to create special effects and colors, both glossy and matte. One such treatment is nubuck: it is achieved by using a process called grinding or sandblasting which works on the leather’s structure itself. The top layer is then slightly shaved and frosted, followed by a light brushing which makes the leather soft and velvety while maintaining its original texture.

Python

Coming mainly from Indonesia, the python is a farmed animal that requires a CITES certification, which ensures that the species is carefully preserved in the wild.

Reticulated Rock Python Skin

Reticulated Rock Python Skin

It may exceed eight feet in length. The most common is the Reticulated Python (Python Reticulatus), also known as Diamond Python, which gets its name from its its distinguishing diamond skin pattern. This specific python’s crust (semi-finished leather, tanned, oiled and dried, and needing only finishing) is naturally charcoal and white in color ( which is also known as Rock ). Although we tend to use it in its natural state in our products, it can also be processed to create any color combination imaginable, from natural-looking beiges, to rich, deep colors that give an extra pop, or even gentle pastel colors. The options are limitless.

Another species used is the Molurus Python (also known as the Indian python or black-tailed python), commonly found in tropic and subtopic areas of Asia. Its skin is whitish or yellowish and is covered with blotched irregular shapes that vary in color from tan to dark brown shades.

Molurus Python Skin

Molurus Python Skin

While the Molurus Python exhibits a beautiful geometric pattern, we also have the option of dying it in one solid color. To achieve this effect, the skin pattern must first be completely removed and then colored afterward (at least for the most classic variants). This process gives the skin one uniform color, as opposed to the more extravagant designs that tend to resemble those of other animals. When these designs are not removed from the skin it is referred to as the “Spotted Python.”

From time to time you will also find some items produced in Curtus Python skin. Rarely exceeding two meters in length, this species is typically found in Southeast Asia. It allows us to create a small number of products with a single skin, without the need for stitching pieces together.

This particular snake always has irregular skin patterns, with colors that range from shades of brown to orange and even red in its natural state.

Python : Front Cut

Python : Front Cut

Python : Back Cut

Python : Back Cut

The actual cut of the python plays an important role when choosing the correct piece to be used for the final product. The two main cuts are Back-cut and Front-cut; however, it is the eventual utilization and application of these pieces that determines the value of your product. For example, a certain product may result in a large amount of unused/discarded material. Another determining factor may be the presence of one or more splices (pieces being glued or stitched together).

Lizard & Iguana

Lizard skin in general is particularly smooth and has a very polished, refined look. They usually exhibit a shiny glazed finish as well, which can come in a variety of colors. The hides tend to be a little thinner but are still extremely durable, making them ideal for a variety of luxury applications as well as hand stitching.

lizard skins in various colours

lizard skins in various colours

In general, lizards, an oviparous species (meaning they lay eggs), have flat, triangular heads, a long tail and a flattened midsection. They also have horny scales with a semi-homogeneous structure in the center that tapers towards the sides, creating a distinct gradient effect.

They can either be used in its crust version, a beautiful pearly white, or it can also be colored and treated, resulting in a wide range of attractive color options.

There are several species referred to by the general term “lizard skin.” First, the Monitor Lizard, known as Komodo Dragon in Thailand, is one of the most popular species and can reach more than three meters in length. It is often used in the production of purses and belts.

The ” Java” and “Tegu” are two common lizard species. The “Java,” native to Australia and the Pacific, is the world’s largest lizard and is consequently used for its size. Although smooth and supple, its skin is incredibly tough. The Tegu Lizard (“giant lizard” in Amazonian dialect) can often be found in South America. Its belly has neat yellow, white or reddish bands going across, which are composed of slim vertical scales. As you move to the side the scales become smaller and more rounded.

The iguana, often confused with the Tejus lizard, has a stockier body structure and a more square-shaped skin pattern. It can also be distinguished by the characteristic ridge on its back (less accentuated in females). Reaching 2/2.5 meters, it is indigenous to Central and South America.

Custom made shoes: Python, Stingray and Lizard

Custom made shoes: Python, Stingray and Lizard

Because of its consistent, unvarying skin pattern and its particularly distinct structure, the skins of iguanas are easily utilized in our handcrafted products and give a coherent, uniform look to products such as belts, bags and shoes.

When iguanas are young they have a bright green color with dark streaks running down their entire body length, helping them with camouflage. As they age, this skin color tends to fade little by little.

The Tejus (Tupinambis), a less known but equally refined and elegant lizard species, has an incredibly delicate banded pattern and is often used for small leather goods, especially watch bands.

Ostrich

Native to South Africa, the Ostrich (Struthio Camelus) is the world’s largest living bird species. Ostrich leather can be distinguished by its very unique bumpy texture. These bumps are actually the vacant quill follicles where the feathers were once attached to the skin. Sometimes described as diamonds or pearls, these tiny bumps span across the bird’s otherwise very smooth skin, resulting in a very pleasing overall look that is perfect for elegant leather products.

Ostrich leather in various colours

Ostrich leather in various colours

Seeing as it is a protected species, ostrich leather comes exclusively from selective breeding. It stands out boldly for its distinct skin pattern and texture; however, only the back is covered with these characteristic hair follicles. Therefore, the actual square-footage that can be used for luxury leather products is reduced to less than 60% due to the amount of discarded material. In the end, the cost per square-foot is similar to that of the alligator or crocodile.

The premium breed of ostrich, the “African Black,” has an incredibly smooth skin texture, supple to the touch. While most leathers have parallel fibers, ostrich leather has three layers of crisscrossed fibers, giving it an elasticity and resistance to cracking. Generally processed in a tannery, it is often found in solid colors.

More waterproof and durable than crocodile, ostrich handbags and belts can last more than 30 years. Moreover, without losing any of its natural characteristics, its coloring only intensifies with age.

Hippo (Hippopotamus)

Contrary to popular belief, products made from Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), are derived from animals not hunted, but rather from those who have died of natural causes. Its natural wrinkled skin is similar to that of the elephant, although it is typically softer to the touch and has an almost velvet-like texture. Due to its thickness, hippo leather is particularly durable and waterproof. Furthermore, its beauty and supple texture are only enhanced with the passage of time.

Hippo Wallets : Horizontal and Vertical

Hippo Wallets : Horizontal and Vertical

Because hippos are not farmed for their skins, every single one is unique and has its own peculiarities. If you look closely you may see little bits of the animal’s history etched into its hide – indications such as scars that have resulted from clashes with other animals over time. Between the scars, the variations in shading and wrinkle patterns that are as individual as fingerprints, our craftsmen are able to create truly one-of-a-kind leather accessories such as wallets, belts and purses. It requires a great amount of skilled craftsmanship and careful selection of hide parts in order to create a uniform coloration and smooth, unnoticeable stitching. Also to be noted is the rarity of hippo skin; in some periods it is simply unobtainable.

Elephant

Like the hippo, elephant (Loxodonta Africana) skin comes exclusively from animals that have died of natural causes; they are not hunted for their skin. Because of this elephant hide is very rare and comes in small quantities.

Elephant Wallets : Horizontal and Vertical

Elephant Wallets : Horizontal and Vertical

Elephant skin is very thick and durable. The “wrinkles” that we see in an elephants skin is evidence of its deep grain, giving it an aspect of dimensionality. This course, rippled grain gives the skin a very unique look. Every grain is different; no two elephant panels looks alike. An elephant’s grain is its fingerprint and its various markings and scars tell a story. Therefore, you can be sure that every product is a unique, one-of-a-kind creation.

Because of its unique texture, elephant leather also requires a great deal of precision in its cutting and processing in order to preserve the aforementioned characteristics. This is especially true when handcrafting products that involve a lot of detailed handiwork.

Stingray

Known as the Shagreen or Galuchat back in the 1700s, the stingray’s skin is very durable since it serves as support for the ray, which has no bone structure. Furthermore, its leather is arguably one of the softest on the market today.

Stingray skins in various colours

Stingray skins in various colours

Although few leather producers utilize this exotic leather in our market, its supple texture and unique circular grain make for a truly exquisite product.

Stingray leather is composed of tiny, closely set circular protrusions on the skin’s surface. The size of these bumps depends largely on the age and size of the animal and, therefore, varies with each leather panel chosen by our artisans.

Stingray Wallet, precious diamond pattern

Stingray Wallet, precious diamond pattern

These tiny circles are actually calcified scales, but they are then sanded down and polished. The dye shows through more vibrantly in the crevices of these bumps, drawing attention to and emphasizing its unique grain.

Another appreciated feature of the stingray skin is that of the white diamond shape eye or crown in the center, which further adds to its unique appearance.In the end, its smooth, supple texture and distinct features make for a luxurious finished product that exudes class and elegance.

Shark

With a distinct fine grain texture and naturally occurring ripples, shark leather is known for having a very course texture, more so than any other leather on the market. This is due to the presence of tiny notches along the surface of the skin. At one time the skin was used like sandpaper for grinding and polishing; however, thanks to modern tanning processes and the help of oils, today shark leather is used for small accessories and jackets.

Shark Leather. Lower right : 	hand-sewn brown shark belt

Shark Leather.
Lower right : hand-sewn brown shark belt

Because of the aforementioned reasons, Nubuck processing (sanding and buffing) is often applied to shark leather, giving it a suede effect. Although the most common coloring is black, the brown and gray variants tend to highlight the natural skin pattern very nicely. As the leather ages over time, the product takes on an alluring vintage look.

The availability of this leather varies from season to season and always in small quantities due to strict regulation.