Except for the die-hard vegans amongst us, most men will incorporate leather products in their wardrobe. From weekend bags, to shoes, to belts, and even to motorcycle jackets, leather is almost as versatile and common as cotton or wool.
And, while leather may be a commonality in every man's closet, it pays to know the differences between a belt that costs $5 and one that sold for $150.
For the most part, leather can be broken down into four different categories - full grain, top grain, genuine, and bonded. All of these are real leather, but their quality, durability, suppleness, color retention, and price will vary.
So what's the difference between the four? It all depends on how much of the cow's hide is used in the production of the leather.
As its name denotes, full-grain leather consists of the entire hide of the animal. Only the hair is removed. Typically this leather is tanned in drums for more than ten hours and comes out as durable as if it were still on a living creature. The default state of the grain on the top layer of leather is what burnishes extremely well and holds onto color.
One of unique attributes of full-grain leather is that the retention of the top layer means scars, brands, and other blemishes from when the animal was alive are still visible. With smaller things like belts and shoes, this can be omitted simply by choosing unblemished pieces. However, in larger items such as bags, furniture, and auto interiors, the imperfections are nearly unavoidable. Many men embrace these imperfections as an indicator of the leather's quality.
Unlike full grain, top-grain leather has the uppermost layer removed by sanding and other treatments. While sanding and shaving the leather removes the visible imperfections, it also minimizes the strength of the hide. For items that are intended to be used in a more refined environment, the sacrifice of durability for aesthetics is not only accepted but embraced. However, when it comes to things like work boots, saddle bags, or other items that need to stand up to daily abuse, top-grain leather is inferior to full.
This is what's left after the entire upper grain has been removed. Depending on how the lower layer is treated, it will either produce a smooth, but cheaper and less durable form of leather, or it can be turned into suede. Suede and nubuck are softer to the touch than their full and top-grain counterparts, but they're also less durable.
Genuine leather is also what most men will find in smaller, cheaper items like belts and watchbands from department stores.
The low man on the totem pole, bonded leather is made by taking leftover scraps, grinding them together with glue, and then resurfacing them in a process similar to what's done with vinyl. Bonded leather has almost no durability, can crack and even break easily, and looks cheap. That peeling couch that's been up on craigslist for five months is bonded.
We recommend that a man purchase the best type of leather he can afford. It may cost more upfront, but the longevity and tendency to look better with age will make items made from top-grain and full-grain leather less expensive in the long run.
As always, style rules are written in pencil, not ink. Play around with it, be daring, show some personality, and discover your own style.
To your style,
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