What Is Exotic Skin Leather?
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While there are a few exceptions such as Cordovan and Calfskin, exotic skin will usually be used to mean any type of leather that hasn’t been sourced from cowhide. However, the term hasn’t been standardised by either the leather or shoe industry. Therefore, it can be somewhat vague.
For instance, leathers derived from sheep, goat, and pigs may sometimes be referred to as exotic. While there are certain breeds of wild swine where this may be the case, the aforementioned animals account for over 30% of worldwide leather production.
Meanwhile, exotic skins should represent only less than a percent to earn the term. Overall, exotic skins consist of relatively rare animal species or from rarely used skin parts of animals. For instance, chicken legs can also be considered a form of exotic leather! Needless to say, these are too small for shoes…
Furthermore, exotic skin will often imply that the leather is sourced from wild and undomesticated animals. Nevertheless, there are a number of farms that specialise in exotic skins in order to control both the quality and sustainability of their sourcing.
Finally, there is often doubt cast onto the ethics of exotic skin. Indeed, there are some instances were the animals are only sourced for their skins while the rest is discarded.
Fortunately, there are international bodies that regulate and protect species from unsustainable exploitation.
Convention of International Trade In Endangered Species
Established in 1973 as the Washington Convention on Species Protection, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) enforces the use of exotic skins.
Firstly, CITES regulates and traces the exportation of live and dead endangered animals as well as their parts and derivatives through a system of certification. Therefore, the trade and shipping of skins requires CITES export permits.
In order to obtain the certification, the skins much be from legal specimens under a management authority. Similarly, the way they were acquired must not be considered detrimental to the species’ survival according to a scientific authority.
Furthermore, the transport conditions of live animals is regulated to prevent inhumane conditions.
CITES works alongside farms, distributors and exporters as well as manufacturers to deter and detect unreported trade. Likewise, it collaborates with government agencies and other international organisations to reduce illegal practices.
As a result, CITES is a key player in protecting wildlife while ensuring that the exotic skins in circulation are legally sourced. However, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the farming practices of legal establishments are quite as ethical as we may hope.
Different Varieties Of Exotic Skin Leather
In this section of the guide, we will explore a sample of the myriad of exotic skins available on the market. We’ve tried to offer as much detail as possible in a single guide so it serves as a full introduction to the mysterious and elusive world of exotic leather.
As this section is particularly long, you can use the following menu to help you navigate:
Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all!
Exotic Reptile Skins
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Reptile skin is probably the most popular choice of exotic leather and usually the variety most associated with the term. Not only are reptiles rare and strictly enforced but they’re also challenging leathers to process.
Many varieties of reptiles are illegal and only a few species can be farmed for their skins. In most cases, they are also exclusively farmed for their skin and it’s rare that other derivatives have other uses. The only exception to this may be crocodile and alligator meat as we’ll explain below.
Consequently, their skins are expensive as breeders can only rely on this as their source of income.
When it comes to crafting goods from reptile leather, the greatest challenge is achieving a certain level of symmetry. Given that the scales can often be somewhat irregular and unique to every hide, this is very difficult with shoes.
With this in mind, it quickly becomes an expensive exercise to carefully select small parts of hides that aren’t too different when making shoes. Therefore, sometimes it can be more popular to only have only reptile accents on otherwise calfskin shoes.
If you just want to read about a single, specific reptilian skin, you can use this quick menu to jump ahead:
Crocodile & Alligator Skin
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Crocodiles have been protected in the wild by CITES since the 1970s. Therefore, both can now only legally be farmed for their skins. Meanwhile, alligators and caimans are subspecies of crocodile whose skins are highly desirable in the leather industry.
Before the introduction of CITES, the alligator population fell considerably. However, this has since risen from 100,000 alligators to 1.5 million in the USA alone.
Only the belly of the crocodile is used for leather as the armoured back is too hard to process. Given that crocodiles are often only farmed for their skins, they’re far more expensive than most other leathers.
That said, both crocodile and alligator meat are indeed edible and considered a delicacy in both parts of the USA and Asia. A staple in traditional Creole, Australian and Thai cuisine, its mild flavour and light texture is also very healthy with its high protein and low carbohydrate composition.
However, crocodile and alligator meat consumption is comparatively low compared to the demand in the skin so the industry is somewhat disproportionate.
Despite the strict regulations that are enforced by CITES, PETA still considers the practice inhumane. However, crocodile farms based in Vietnam have faced the most criticism, which highlights the importance of sourcing skins from reputed breeders.
One of the most renowned breeders, the Darwin Crocodile Farm, can be found in Australia and has more than 70,000 crocodiles on-site. Meanwhile, 500,000 alligators are bred in the USA with 85% coming from Louisiana.
How To Tell The Difference Between Crocodile & Alligator Leather
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Both alligator and crocodile skins are visually very similar and consist of tile-like scales arranged in uniform rows. However, there are some slight differences when closely inspected.
Firstly, crocodile scales are more uniform than alligator. If you were to look at an entire stomach hide, you would notice that each side is almost symmetrical. Consequently, crocodile is somewhat cheaper as it’s easier to craft symmetrical shoes from the skin.
Furthermore, you may notice that each crocodile scale has a small dot in the centre. Referred to as pores, these are hair follicle roots that were removed during the tanning process.
Meanwhile, alligator leather features tiles that are much more irregular with a prominent umbilical scar. In fact, this is the main reason that it is so costly as less can be easily used.
Furthermore, alligator skin often features natural albeit desirable scars, which are noticeable as uneven strokes at the base of the scales even when shined.
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Like crocodile leather, there are many varieties of snake that are now protected by CITES. For instance, cobra used to be a popular skin for leathers, which is now internationally prohibited.
Typically, most snakeskin will be sourced from legal varieties of python that are usually farmed to a large enough size to be used for shoes. Meanwhile, anaconda is another popular variety of snake with a different arrangement of scales.
As anaconda is not protected, it is quite easy to acquire from South America. Furthermore, it’s an extremely large variety of snake as you can imagine. As such, a single anaconda can provide a greater quantity of leather. However, they are hunted in the wild so the pelts may feature some natural scarring.
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Unlike crocodile and snake, lizards have relatively simple skins to tan into leather. As they’re naturally supple without any armour, it’s much easier to extract larger surface areas. Similarly, their scales aren’t are delicate as snakes, which avoids any issues that may arise when processed.
Most skins are sourced from Monitors, which is a general term used to describe 79 species of tropical lizards. Meanwhile, Teju is a highly desirable lizard for its skin given its unique pattern and scale system. As it can grow up to 1.5 metres in length, the hides are also quite large.
Finally, iguana was a once popular skin up until the Great Depression of the 1920s. It was often used to denote wealth and was often seen in a patchwork of several hundred lizards on car seats.
Exotic Mammal & Bird Leathers
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Although connoisseurs will release that exotic skins can be sourced from mammals just as much as reptiles, they’re often overlooked by those who are less familiar with the tanning industry.
In fact, there are a plethora of different skins and leathers throughout the animal kingdom with some that can be quite surprising.
After all, we’ve been tanning leather since about 7,000 BC!
Some of the species and varieties of leather listed below are regarded as quite common in some countries. Alternatively, others are so exotic that they are even endangered or illegal.
In this section, we’ll be exploring the following mammal and bird skins:
Simply use the links above if you want to jump ahead.
Antelope & Kudu Skin Leather
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In Africa, antelope is a popular and affordable leather with a natural velvet texture. Consequently, varieties of antelope like Springbok is often used to produce types of suede leather.
Similarly, Kudu is a much more desirable species of antelope with skins that are occasionally used for antelope. However, the rich exterior of the skin is a treasured among enthusiasts.
Given the reduced number of predators, the South African government has issued a mandate to cull the growing Kudu population. Therefore, they’re legally hunted for their meat, horns, as well as their skin.
As they’re not farmed but hunted in the wild, the skin’s exterior also tends to feature natural scarring and scratches that result in unique hides. Consequently, Kudu is probably one the few exotic skins that has a relatively positive impact on the environment.
Carpincho & Peccary Pig Leathers
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Although vastly different from the domestic swine, both Carpincho (or Capybara) and Peccary are usually referred to as pig leathers. Both are sourced from South America but are completely different in appearance.
For instance, the Carpincho is a small water mammal that looks more like a Castorid rodent than a pig. Meanwhile, the Peccary is a small boar-like pig that’s also hunted for its strong-tasting meat.
Additionally, both Carpincho and Peccary are more commonly used for gloves than shoes thanks to their supple structure. Indeed, they have a somewhat similar appearance but due to its smaller size, the Peccary is much finer with a more delicate texture.
Elephant Skin Leather
A variety of leather that is rife with ethical and legal concerns and controversies, elephant skin is unsurprisingly popular in a number of African countries.
Furthermore, genuine elephant leather is quite rare. Indeed, the majority of products advertised as such are often counterfeit cowhide embossed with an elephant leather effect.
While the trade of elephant leather is strongly regulated, it is not always illegal. In fact, elephant leather has been legal in both South Africa and Namibia since 2004. However, exporting it to other countries is strictly controlled with CITES permits.
Nevertheless, illegal elephant leather can find its way into Europe or the USA through illegal poaching and big game hunting.
Therefore, great care should be taken in purchasing elephant leather goods in Africa or from private sellers abroad. Meanwhile, the WWF strongly advises that they aren’t purchased at all.
What Is Cordovan Leather?
Horse leather has always been somewhat rare given that the trusty steed was historically associated with work rather than the slaughterhouse. Nevertheless, horse meat is actually considered a delicacy in places like France as long as it is properly labelled!
Typically, horse leather is referred to as “cordovan” and like “cordwainer“, its etymology is supposedly rooted to the Spanish town of Córdoba. However, the town was renowned for working with goat skin rather than horse.
In fact, the use of cordovan horse leather mostly originates from the United States. In the USA, it may not always been strictly perceived as an exotic skin. That said, its demand strongly exceeds the current supply. As a result, it’s a particularly expensive leather.
As mentioned earlier, horse meat is a French delicacy. Therefore, it’s not surprising to learn that the majority of skins are imported from France and occasionally Québec.
Cordovan is specifically sourced from either the two round areas below the flank’s skin of a heavy workhorse, which are known as the butt or shell. Shell cordovan is by far the most desirable due to its natural resistance and greasiness.
After an intensive six-month tanning process, the resulting leather has a naturally glazed appearance, which develops a rich patina over time.
Kangaroo Skin Leather
An incredibly thin and naturally lightweight yet resistant leather, kangaroo is a very popular exotic leather. However, kangaroos are so commonplace in Australia that they’re not even farmed but hunted for both their hides and meat.
Given its unique characteristics, kangaroo leather is best known for motorcycle and sportswear. Thanks to its lightweight resistance and breathable properties, it’s an ideal choice for sports shoes as well as motorcycle suits.
However, kangaroo leather is somewhat rarer for dress shoes despite its resemblance to cowhide and affordability. This is likely because most kangaroo leather is chromium-tanned, which isn’t a particularly desirable treatment for premium shoes.
Finally, kangaroos technically