Nov 2, 20171632 views

Stuff to know about leather grades when shopping online for straps

Have you ever noticed that any olive that you are likely to encounter in real life has a size grade that makes it seem big?
Or were you around when the FDA suddenly changed the "ice milk" category to "low-fat ice cream"?
These kinds of offical gradings are heavily influenced by industry pressures.
I bought a leather watch strap the other day off of Amazon. The strap was a thick strap with Panerai-style buckle. Everything about it is fine, except the texture of the leather is really weird, and not very leather like. Had I been scammed and given pleather or some other fake leather product?
The back of the strap was stamped "Genuine Leather." That's good, right? Turns out, no. Here's what I've learned since about leather.
o "Full-grain leather" is the good stuff.
o "Top-grain leather" has the top split off and is sanded and stamped with a new fake leather texture or is painted with a texture.
o "Genuine leather," what I bought, is the plywood of leather. The odds and ends of the lower layers of leather are glued together in a Nutraloaf fashion and bonded into a sheet which is sanded down to be smooth. The texture may be suede-like. If it's not suede-like, that's even worse, since some sort of additional processing was involved. This stuff is never going to look good nor age well.
The straps sold by small craftsmen, such as the stuff here on Massdrop, is no problem. But beware stuff sold online that doesn't explicitly say full-grain leather or have a photo of the craftsman working with an obviously full-grain hide.
A similar situation obtains with carbon fiber watch cases. Real carbon fiber is formed from sheets of carbon fiber fabric molded into plastic. But in general, carbon fiber watch cases contain powderized carbon fiber mixed into plastic. This weakens the plastic rather than strengthening it, but it allows for the marketing department to call the plastic "carbon fiber."
Mikster, DinoJoe, and 10 others

Not that any of that matters to the animal who's skin is in question.
Yeah, I no longer wear leather straps because of that. Also, I switched from gelatin-based photographic film to vegan wet plate collodion photography and don't regret it a bit. Although it takes 45 minutes to take a selfie, I have plenty of time to get to know my subjects, and I can shift-tilt to keep the background architectural details honest.
This is actually untrue. These aren't grades used by anyone tanning leather or any major manufacturer in the leather industry.
The story of genuine leather is an interesting one. But it's a long one with a bunch of different facets...don't say I didn't warn you.
The idea that "Genuine is a grade of leather (the 2nd worse one)" is the biggest 'leather myth" on the internet today. Simply put it just means real. A distinguisher from synthetic. It shouldn't be taken to mean "good" or "bad."
Let's get into how "genuine always=bad" came to be and why it's still wrong: So back in the day "Genuine Leather" got stamped on all sorts of "good" leather goods. Here's a packaging tag from my company from the 70's and 80's It was a selling point, but as cheap imported goods got more and more common, less than honest companies asked themselves "what's the cheapest leather that's still technically 'genuine'?" Enter: The finished split. A finished split is basically suede that's covered in either a sheet or PU or a heavy pigment layer. The goal is to make suede look like top/full grain: smooth. The problem with this is that it's the equivalent of trying to make a smooth dance floor by painting or laying vinyl flooring over shag carpet. With use the outer layer breaks down and you have a mess. Cheap leather goods manufacturers started stamping "Genuine Leather" on things made with finished splits to the extent that much of the leather goods you'd find would be low quality and stamped "genuine leather" have to remember this was the 80's and 90's people were not as willing back then to drop $50 or $100 on a wallet like today, you just couldn't find very many quality leather goods outside of smaller makers.
One take home from what happened with genuine leather is that unethical manufactures/tanneries will take whatever buzzword is taken by people as the shortcut for quality and capitalize on it. For example: full grain just means "nothing has been done to alter the outer grain" that means a tannery can actually do less to a leather and it's still "technically full grain." Which is why you can't count on "full grain" alone to be a sign of quality.
There are many exceptions to the "Genuine=Bad" rule. The biggest one is Red Wing Heritage. They're stamping "Genuine Leather" on the veg-tan sole of Beckmans and other shoes. They are using it "Genuinely" just to mean real. I've also noticed that many global and European brands also use it: $3000 Dior Homme Leather Jackets, Article Furniture uses genuine in it's short descriptions for their full grain aniline Italian leather. Apple's "official" cases are decent leather but are called "Genuine Leather" in the descriptions. Search "Genuine Leather" on Kickstarter and you'll notice that many projects that are obviously using decent leather from France, Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe use it to describe what they use (probably just a translation thing.)
The origin of Genuine (and the rest of these terms) as grades
Calling genuine leather a grade of leather is probably one of the worst misconceptions to plague my industry. It's forced my Dad, a 70 leatherworker who's worked with leather most of his life, to have to take it out of his vocabulary when he talks to uninformed customers. Many smaller leather companies, my own included, have had to remove the word from our websites for fear of people getting confused.
This all started with a video and related article where a big leather goods manufacture broke down some "grades of leather" in a very slanted and misleading way. This video went viral. These "facts" got repeated everywhere and now several times a week someone here on Reddit says "genuine is the second worst grade of leather." Some newer companies have even repeated this nonsense breakdown in their product descriptions. Genuine has never been a grade, you can't call up a butcher and ask for just real beef. You can't call up a tannery and ask for "genuine leather" the term is just too broad, there are so many other words used in our industry to describe leather.
This entire "grading system" isn't used by any government, majory tannery trade group, or regulating authority anywhere: it is completely made up.
So was this misrepresentation of facts on purpose?
You bet ya. If these articles had simply said “genuine sometimes means”, I’d have no problem, but they go so far as to claim it’s some sort if secret “industry term” which is wrong. Industry terms are specific; sometimes so specific that they aren't understood by those outside the industry. Genuine leather is such a broad term and that it's useless as a specific descriptor. So it’s hard to see those statements as anything but a malicious misrepresentation of facts to pump up the product. It caught on because it's got this "click-baity", you think it means 'x' but it really means this ring to it. Kind of like the "USA is a city in Japan" urban legend Lastly, I'll tell you: I get weekly emails from less expensive tanneries all the time and they never use the word genuine. They use real, full grain, a whole bunch of real industry terms that I won't get into here.
So it sounds like genuine may be like "natural' in the food industry, nice term in theory, but unregulated so it's become meaningless, but certainly could include the coarse, pasted Nutraloaf style leathers.
Horween uses "full grain" for Chromexcel, Dublin, Derby, and their glove leathers, but not for their ball leathers or Cordovan. So there is some sort of division between full-grain and non-full grain. (first vertical column after the stub is for the Full Grain check)
Here is their glossary:
"Full Grain: Leather that has its surface left completely intact, showing all natural characteristics of the hide."
Even full grain and every other term isn't actually isn't regulated and the fact that it's full intact isn't really a full measure of ONLY means nothing has been done to the outermost surface. If you know anything about leather, you know that's not the only thing that determines quality and durability. Think about it; were you to throw out all the other factors like defects on the hide, finish, waxes and oils, etc, full grain would be the cheapest leather to make.
I've long said that when you're talking about a "good" tannery like Horween or SB Foot, that full grain vs not full grain can be mostly a matter of taste as opposed to durability and even cost (Horween's "not full grain" leathers aren't significantly cheaper).

I love Horween's tannage page but it does show that there's plenty of good quality leather that's not technically full grain. One that I've worked with that I'd say is as good as CXL is Cavalier, if nobody told you, you wouldn't know that its had any "correction." Also if you check out Horween's tannery row page ( , they've changed a little on the CXL description: They say it's "Lightly Corrected"!!!! I still love CXL but it goes to show you that "full grain" isn't nearly as important as some people make it out to be.
Building on this - who sells the best leather straps online? Does anyone have a preferred spot? I have one from Bandrbands I've been happy with, but in the market for another.
Anyone have experience with leather Natos? I have to fold back much of a Nato with my smaller wrist size, and seems like that wouldn't quite work with leather if it was any sort of quality.
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These are all from my watch straps links folder. I have a couple of straps on order, but have not personally seen any of these yet. I think they all offer at least some full-grain leagther straps. For stuff like ammo-bag straps, the makers may not even know what the original material was, although many of the fakey manufacturing and processing techniques are probably recent and were not around in the past.
Besides DeLuca, and specifically designated full-grainend products from B and R, there's Vulture Premium, who've done about three drops here, obviously use full-grain hides, from Horween, Tochigi Leather, and probably their Italian stuff (I want to try a band from their camouflage ltalian leather: the incongruity of a kitschy camo pattern on full-grain leather is too funny to pass up). Eternal Leather of Hong Kong has done a watch pouch drop here, but they also do straps and will do custom straps from their Etsy page.
Dangerous9 gets into full-grained but "e-mail for the price" territory. There's SNPR. The Strap Smith, and Aaron Bespoke. I don't know about Clover Straps: They say genuine leather, but the guy might just not know the terminology, since I can't believe he'd put such effort into something with inferior materials.
Here are some promising makers from a quick Google search: Martú, Vintager Straps by Micah, Bas & Lokes, Stevo's Straps, Erica's Originals, Toshi Straps, Camille Fournet, ABP Concept, Ted Su, Greg Stevens Design, GasGasBones, Popov Leather, Equis Leather, DStrap, Jack Foster, Di Stephano, Julien Landa, Europelli, Strap Culture, Dirk Straps, (Ryan) Gordon Straps, NeroStraps, and various people on Etsy.
To-do: Ashland, District, Maratac, Guarded Goods, Triwa, NATO Strap Co., Hides and Stitches.
Edit: I went over to the Horween website, and they have a detailed chart listing the characteristics of their three or four dozen leather products. Chromexcel, Dublin, and Derby are all full-grain; Genuine Shell Cordovan is not full-grain, it's probably a high-quality top grain leather, as the description says that it is shaved ("to expose the shell") horsehide. Also, neither their Basketball nor Football tannages are full grain, but their Glove leather is full grain. Depending on the use and the characteristics desired (e.g., uniformity of surface texture, impregnation with various kinds of goop), full grain may not be the best in all cases, perhaps. Or maybe it's simply a price issue. In all, Horween has over two dozen full-grain tannages, and I expect that some may not be appropriate for watch bands, but it's too bad that the same few types are seen over and over and these other tannages are never seen in straps (e.g., Shrunken Grain, Longrider)
A cautionary tale. Thanks for the information.
Not an endorsement, since I haven't bought from this company, but via @kpjimmy I found online, and I noticed that they have quite a few bands that they specifically identify as "full-grain leather" in their descriptions, sometimes identified as Italian leather or with the brand name of Horween, for between $60 and $80, which is much cheaper than the boutique hand-made suppliers (unless you buy them here on Massdrop).
I'd stay away from anthing labeled as being "suede," unless you really like that look and feel.
Also, I'm suspicious of their Croco bands, which they describe as "crafted from full-grain Italian leather with a laser-cut crocodile pattern." Since full-grain leather has its own texture, it seems weird to overlay a fake croco pattern on it. But maybe it's legit.
I've run across those types of straps also. I guess that's why there's are large variation in price.
That's great info and definitely explains the lower cost genuine leather straps that I see (and have bought) vs. leather straps that cost well over $150. Just last night I discovered Equus leathers in England with some incredible craftsmanship, and prices to match. Thanks for the insights. I'll need to do some reading.