From Calf to Croc: Your Guide to Different Kinds of Leather

Leather 101. Know the different types of leather, where they come from, and how to care for them.

Leather has been long favored and utilized by man since the dawn of time.

The process of tanning can be traced way back to around 7,000 to 3,300 B.C., when inhabitants of modern-day Pakistan were known to produce waterskins, bags, armor, boots, and sandals. The strong material’s beauty might lend to its overall appeal, but it's its versatile nature and near-infinite durability that have kept it an essential.


Calfskin is one of the most commonly used leathers due to its soft texture and distinct grain. It is sourced from young calves or domestic cattle. The leather will often be used for fashion items such as clothing, shoes, bags, and more. Calfskin has two types: One being smooth and the other pebbled.

Smooth calfskin is shiny leather with a buttery texture. Over time, this type of leather will develop a unique sheen. Being smooth, the leather is susceptible to scratches—minor scratches, however, can be buffed to into the texture. Smooth calfskin shoes and bags add a polished and smart touch to an outfit so they’re used mostly for special occasions and for formal work wear.


Though vastly different from smooth calfskin, pebbled calfskin is made from the same material with the added feature of pressed grain. It is widely regarded as a less formal version and a more durable option than its smooth counterpart. Pebbled calfskin’s casual characteristics make it a contemporary fashion choice.

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A full grain leather, Nappa was created by Emanuel Manasse in 1875. The name is derived from the location where Manasse made the material: Napa, California. Nappa’s main difference from calfskin is that it’s made using young lamb or sheep. The leather has specific characteristics such as it being soft and pliable, more durable than calfskin, and breathable. It does not retain moisture, and can develop a darker tone over time. Nappa is most often used for specialty luxury items like jackets, bags, and wallets. It is also noted for its use in top-of-the-line cars, including Ferrari, Porsche, and BMW.


Suede and Nubuck

These leathers can be sourced from different types of hides of different animals. What makes them different from regular leather is that different methods are used to produce the end result.


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For suede, the calfskin is simply turned over and sanded to reveal a supple and velvety texture. Suede is notorious for being difficult to maintain. Scratches can easily be buffed out, but any type of liquid will permanently damage the skin. Nubuck is produced using the outer side of the skin, except that it is sanded. Since it uses the same side as regular leather, the material is more durable but should still be kept away from water. To care for both skins, do regular brushing. Depending on the color, they may need specific suede/nubuck conditioners.

Exotic Leathers

Some of the world’s most expensive leathers come from exotic animals. Business of Fashion  says "exotic animal skins make up almost 10 percent of the total revenue from handbag sales for luxury brands." Unlike cattle, exotic animals are more costly to raise and require special conditions, knowledgeable handlers, and diet.

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Lizard skin is commonly sourced from African water monitor lizards. Being a reptile, lizard leather is one of the most delicate exotic leathers. It can dry out and flake away when not routinely cleaned and conditioned. The leather can be finished matte or glossy, and due to the size of the lizard, it can only be used to make accessories and smaller handbags.

Like lizard skin, snakeskin is a delicate leather. The leather's scales lightly peel with use, adding to its appeal. It is used in various fashion items such as belts, shoes, and accessories—larger items use snakeskin as a design accent. The preferred types of snakes used are the python, cobra, and sea snake. These snakes are larger in size and have striking colors and patterns.

Ostrich leather is one of the most durable exotic leathers. It is water-resistant and can be vibrantly dyed in virtually any color. The leather darkens over time with exposure to skin oils, which, depending on the user’s preferences may be an upside or a downside. Ostrich skin features a unique pattern of bumps, known as vacant quill follicles, making it a coveted material.

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In terms of exotics, alligator and crocodile are the most prized leathers. Both are used in shoes, bags, accessories. The belly side of the animal is often the most desired. Hermes handbags use only the belly side to create Birkins and Kellys. The main difference between the leathers is that alligator skin costs comparably less. Alligators also have smaller scales that help disguise imperfections. Ironically, tanned crocodile and alligator skins are delicate and should be kept away from water.

Patent Leather

Patent leather is generally leather that has been coated with chemicals to give it an overly glossy effect. The coating process is attributed to Seth Boyden, of Newark, New Jersey, who created the method in 1818. Today, some patent products are coated with plastic instead of Boyden’s method of using linseed oil-based lacquer. Dark patent leather shades are long-lasting and sought-after for formal events. Lighter colored patent products are susceptible to color transfer and when stored improperly may fuse with other objects.

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About The Author
Paolo Chua
Associate Style Editor
Paolo Chua is the Associate Style Editor at Esquire Philippines, where he writes about fashion and grooming. Before joining Esquire Philippines, he was a writer at Town & Country Philippines.
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