If you’re a leather lover who likes to shop, you’ve probably heard some variation of this boast from a retailer before: “Our products are made from genuine leather.” Genuine leather is a term that’s meant to make you ooh and aah, but what exactly does it mean? Are they using real leather instead of a synthetic, or are they using the best type of leather in the business?
Before you buy another leather wallet or pair of shoes, you need to know the truth: Genuine leather is a made-up marketing term that’s designed to make consumers think the leather they’re buying is high-quality, when it is really just a mediocre grade of leather. There are five grades of leather in all, and here’s how they stack up against each other in terms of quality.
The Five Leather Grades
Before you can understand leather types, you need to understand how leather is created. When a piece of rawhide is made into leather, it’s split into pieces of varying thickness (per the manufacturer’s specifications). The quality of a piece of leather is determined by this process of splitting.
After a rawhide is split, the pieces fall into one of five categories. Leather makers take these categories and award them different “grades,” which helps to set standards across the industry. As long as you’re familiar with the five grades, you can easily find the best leather accessories in any store.
Full Grain Leather
This type of leather comes from the topmost piece of the rawhide. It contains the complete grain of the hide (including any natural patterns or imperfections), which gives the leather a rugged, authentic look. Full grain leather is extremely durable and wear-resistant, making it a popular choice for high-end leather goods.
Top Grain Leather
This type of leather is another material used for high-end leather accessories, such as belts, wallets, and purses. However, it varies from full-grain leather in one key way: Leather tanners typically buff out any visible imperfections in top grain leather, giving it a much smoother, uniform appearance than full grain leather.
Split Grain Leather
Unlike full grain and top grain leather, split grain leather doesn’t contain any of the rawhide grain. This gives it a drastically different look and feel (suede is one of the most common forms) than higher grades of leather. Split grain leather is commonly used for the inner linings of purses, jackets, and other attire.
And now we come to genuine leather. That’s right, genuine leather is one of the lowest grades in the industry! This leather comes from the portion of rawhide furthest from the top. It contains none of the hide’s grain, which makes it significantly less durable than the three grades of leather above it.
The only lower grade of leather than genuine leather is bonded leather, which is made by gluing scraps of leather together to form a solid piece. Bonded leather is made from leather dust, vinyl, plastic, glue, and (you guessed it) pieces of genuine leather. Even though bonded leather is made from rawhide, it can be less durable than synthetic leather products like pleather.
The next time you shop for leather, don’t be fooled by claims of “genuine leather” products. If you want a product that can last a lifetime, buy from stores that sell full grain and top grain leather (American Bench Craft comes to mind), and stay away from the cheaper grades.
Meet the Author
Brittney Reeves is a freelance writer and fashion enthusiast based in Los Angeles, CA. In addition to her full time job as a buying consultant for small boutiques, she also writes fashion advice blogs that have been published across a number of digital platforms. In her free time, she takes her dog running along the Malibu coastline.