If you have tried to purchase a leather wallet, or a pair of leather shoes from a departmental store, chances are you’d have seen a ‘Genuine Leather’ mark somewhere on the product. Most people will assume that just because it is 100% genuine leather, it’ll be extremely durable and age beautifully. This false belief arises from the misconception that leather goods are made from the entire hide of the cow. However, entire cowhides are usually too thick to be used for crafting leather goods by itself, and is usually split into a few layers with different properties. The truth is, not all leather is the same, that’s why we’ve put together this short guide so that you do not get burned by low quality goods!
Here is a cross section of the layers in a cowhide:
A piece of cowhide is typically split into 3 layers:
- Full-grain leather
- Top-grain leather
- Genuine leather
Notice how the fibres start out vertically aligned and densely packed in the outermost grain, then gradually progresses to randomly aligned and loose in the corium. The vertically aligned and densely backed fibres in the grain make the toughest layer of leather, which makes sense as that is the layer that protects the cow from cuts and scratches.
When something is made of quality materials, it is usually not simply labelled with a vague, generic descriptor like “genuine” or “premium”, but comes with a transparent description of its quality sources. This is why we let you know that our shoe trees are made with 100% American Red Cedar Heartwood, that our shoe brushes are made with 100% full-strand horse tailhair, and that our shoe horns are made with Japanese Oakwood, instead of calling them simply “excellent shoe trees”, “natural hair shoe brush”, and “premium shoe horn”.
Genuine leather is produced from the layers of hide that remain after the top is split off for the better grades. The surface is usually refinished (spray painted) to resemble a higher grade. It can be smooth or rough. Genuine leather is much weaker because of its loose microstructure. Therefore, using leather care products on it will not do much to improve its durability.
Lower quality genuine leather is sometimes less affectionately known as ‘bonded leather’ and is made from scraps of leather shavings pressed and glued together. The material is only as strong as the glue used, and is commonly used in cheap ‘leather’ wallets. You can identify and avoid genuine leather products by their thin, paper-ish layer that seems to be stretched over cardboard – but they usually already give it away by stamping a ‘genuine leather’ tag on.
Top-grain Leather is the second highest grade of leather beside full-grain leather, and is made from cowhide that has significant scarring or aesthetic defects. It is made by sanding off the outer surface of the leather to remove the aesthetic imperfections, so it is comprised partially of the dense grain layer and corium. A fake grain appearance is then heat-stamped on the sanded finish to give it the appearance of animal skin.
Top-grain leather is relatively strong as it contains part of the grain, and actually makes a great material for belts, wallets and jackets. The downsides of top-grain leather are almost purely aesthetic: it looks too perfect to the point of artificial, and does not develop a nice patina like full-grain leather does. Unless you are using it in something heavy duty like tool belts or shoes, the slight reduction in strength and durability over full-grain leather is negligible.
You can recognise top-grain leather from its overly-uniform, too-perfect leather grain and even a slight plastic-y finish.
Full-grain leather is the strongest, highest-quality layer of a cowhide and comprises entirely of the dense grain layer. Since it is this layer that protects the cow from cuts and scratches, it is also the toughest layer in a piece of cowhide. It can only be produced from cowhides that are almost aesthetically perfect i.e little to no scarring, insect bites, branding, etc and are hence expensive.
With just the occasional cleaning and conditioning, to which it responds very well, full grain leather is very likely going to last you the rest of your life. If you are distinguishing enough to own shoes made with full-grain leather, we recommend using Saphir Medaille d’Or Renovateur conditioner to keep the leather in supple, crease-free, and crack-resistant for decades to come.
It is the ideal material for heavier duty products such as tool belts, briefcases, and shoes. In addition, full-grain leather ages beautifully and develops a refined patina – an uneven darkening of parts of the leather due to uneven absorption of oils during use. In some cases, shoe aficionados even artificially apply a patina by applying more polish or cream to a certain area of the shoe.
Ironically, the way to identify this premium leather is by looking for an imperfect grain pattern. The pits in the leather should be randomly distributed just as pores would naturally be, and the occasional scar or insect bite is a tell-tale sign of full-grain leather.
Patent leather isn’t really comparable along a parallel axis as the aforementioned leather types – patent leather can be made from either genuine, top-grain, or full-grain leather. It is basically leather that has a plastic coating over it to make it glossy. As patent leather is water-proof, easy-to-clean, and is basically a ready-made mirror shine, it is sometimes used by professionals who are too lazy to take care of their shoes.
However, I’d argue that wearing leather coated in plastic is a waste of money as you’d lose out on all the advantages of real leather products, and you’d be better off purchasing cheap plastic shoes in the first place instead!