I’ve always wondered about the difference between Louisiana alligator leather and crocodile. Like most people I wrongly assumed they were one and the same. In order to broaden my understanding I decided to call in the expert in the shape of Bianca Mosca Chairman, Tim de Rosen. As you know I’m a huge fan of their superb quality alligator wallets and accessories.
This is what I learned:
By carefully examining the leather in a crocodilian product you can get clear clues as to it’s species. Those products with a large amount of leather are generally easier to identify. Small products such as watch bands are much more difficult to distinguish.
This is especially important since the quality of crocodilian leathers varies greatly by species. Alligators and crocodiles in general are considered to be classic leathers and are in most cases high quality and high price.
Caiman, mainly from South American counties such as Colombia is an inferior product and much cheaper and abundant in the market. Although caiman has its place in the market, mislabeling has become such a problem that the buyer need beware. An example of inferior products is the widely available Nancy Gonzalez brand that is sold in many high end boutiques as crocodile but which is in fact caiman. Many caiman products are marked crocodile or alligator and sold at the high prices of these classic leathers. Alligator is sometimes marked “croc”, and “croc” is occasionally mislabelled alligator.
Some of this is a cultural difference. Americans tend to call all “crocodile” alligator, and Europeans tend to call “alligator” crocodile. Upon close inspection, one will find that some large pieces have mixed leather in them. In the past it was fashionable to make a purse with alligator on one side and crocodile on the other. Today, due to product cost, it is not uncommon to see a purse with alligator or crocodile on the front and back and caiman on the sides with a caiman strap.
Faux designs are getting better and better and are increasingly becoming more difficult to identify. Some faux patterns are made by rolling something over a genuine skin to make the press. The finer details of faux are beyond the scope of this page, but here are tell-tale signs: the creases between the tiles are not deep and the pattern is often very repetitive.
How To Identify Leathers: Alligator Umbilical Scars
The single most distinguishing feature of alligator leather is the umbilical scar. The alligator is the only crocodilian that has this feature. Designers will often put this section of the leather prominently on their products to make the authenticity of the leather evident. As many as three may be used in making a purse. The umbilical scar is an elongated star shape with a webbing pattern in it. Finding this mark on leather identifies it as genuine alligator.
Pliability and durability are what makes the alligator a superior and classic leather. Alligator and crocodile leathers are pliable. Caiman have bony plates in the skin, which dramatically decreases the pliability of the leather. When caiman leather is creased cracks appear between the plates.
Another way the unpracticed eye can easily distinguish alligator leather is by counting the bumps on the back of the head. At the base of the head crocodilians have a pattern of bumps that is unique to each species.
The alligator has a pattern of 2-2-2 bumps. Caiman have a pattern of 4-4-2, and crocodiles have 4-2.
Belly Scales and Patterns
The belly scales of the alligator and crocodile are smooth and pliable. This smoothness and the homogenous nature of alligator and crocodile skins allows dyes to distibute evenly in the leather. The bony deposits in the caiman skin will not allow dyes to distribute evenly and causes crinkling in the belly scales. If you see splotchy patterns in the dye, then you are looking at caiman.
The alligator has a slightly less even pattern than the crocodile with some irregularities appearing in the scales. As already mentioned the alligator has the umbilical scar and the crocodile does not.
Flank Scales and Patterns
The flanks of the alligator have dense scales of even sizes, while the flanks of the caiman have uneven sizes and spaced scales.
Ultimately, your only guarantee is to buy quality products from a manufacturer that can identify the sourcing of it’s material from US certified farms that comply with all of the regulations set down for the ecological and humane treatment of their stock.
Not all alligator is created equal. Once the skins have been sourced they need to be carefully selected and graded and treated correctly in the tanning and dyeing process to ensure the best results-but that’s another story for a future article.