When we think of leather, we typically think of simple calfskins, but leather goods are in fact much more diverse. Leather jackets, for example, can be made from lambskin for a softer appearance, or horsehide for something tougher. Gloves can also come in a variety of materials, including capeskin (a pliable sheepskin with a fine grain), deerskin (a hardwearing leather with a “tacky” surface), or Peccary (a highly grained, but still very soft, material).
Up the price and you enter the world of exotics, from which high-end shoes, bags, and even garments can be made from. The most common of these include alligator and crocodile skins, although the terminology here can be a bit muddled. It’s not uncommon to see crocodile and alligator items get mislabeled, where one is wrongly marketed as the other. An easy way to determine what you’re looking at is to see if there’s a small, pin-dot-sized dimple in the middle of each scale. These would be the hair follicles that are only present in crocodile.
Not all alligator or crocodile leathers are worth buying, however. Some can look rather ragged, and perhaps even be drawn from caiman – a type of animal that’s only a cousin to alligators, but is not actually the same. Caiman skins have a messy, wrinkled appearance and are prone to cracking. As such, they’re generally best avoided. Instead, search for things with clean lines, even patterns, and smooth transitions in the scales. Be careful if things look too perfect, however. Such materials can be alligator or crocodile patterns just stamped into calfskin.
Other exotics can include lizard and snakeskin, which will have the beautiful reptilian pattern of alligator or crocodile, but come in a smaller scale. Sharkskin and elephant skin will have a rough, coarse texture to help them distinguish themselves from calf, but not be so unusual that they call attention to themselves. Ostrich leather is prized for its large, round, pimply-looking protrusions (which indicate where the feathers have been plucked). While soft and supple, these are also very durable.
More eye-catching are stingrays, which are distinguished by round, nodule-like patterns (often sparkling and vibrant), but despite their luxurious appearance, are actually quite tough. In fact, stingray leather can be twenty-five times more durable than cowhide. In the middle of each skin is typically a diamond shaped eye or “crown,” which can be used in the product’s design, and when the skin is sanded or highly polished, it becomes shagreen. Shagreen is generally not pliable, so unlike stingray (which is often used for luxury-end shoes or wallets), it’s reserved for decorative accents in things such as cigarette cases or display boxes.
Wearing exotic leathers can feel foreign and intimidating to the uninitiated, but when done well, they can be quite tasteful. Alligator loafers have long been commonplace among the Anglo-American elite in the Northeastern regions of the US, and crocodile slide-buckle belts have been a way for men everywhere to add a distinctive touch to their otherwise somber ensembles. Whether one gets a full-blown pair of stingray wholecut shoes, or something more conservative, such as sharkskin wallet, exotics can give the style-conscious man something more special than your simple, standard calf.