A top quality alligator belt or wallet can be a source of pride every day, and serve you well for a decade or more. In addition to their elegant look and feel, accessories made from alligator and crocodile offer functionality, durability and prestige well beyond similar items in common leather. For these reasons, alligator and crocodile items make excellent, long-remembered gifts.
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When purchasing an exotic leather accessory, do some research, and buy from vendors that you can trust. Understand that quality and price can vary widely, and that you can maximize your satisfaction by carefully selecting the the type, quality and finish of the exotic leather best suited to your intended use. Because of the premium prices commanded by alligator and crocodile
items, many sellers mislabel and misrepresent the species and the quality of the skins. Since alligators and all types of crocodile are endangered, threatened or
otherwise protected, their commercial trade is restricted. If importing an item into the USA, be aware that the skins utilized may come from endangered populations, and that shipment s are routinely inspected, and without the proper regulatory certifications, confiscated.
While it is important to exercise some care in selecting alligator and crocodile accessories, don't be discouraged from buying a beautiful gift for someone special, including yourself. As in buying anything on-line, only buy from people with a solid reputation that you can trust.
What is the difference between "Alligator" and "Crocodile" leather?
While there is essentially only one species of alligator ( the "American Alligator" or " alligator mississippiensis"), there are a dozen species of crocodiles, in varied shapes and sizes found all over the world. The trade in alligator and all species of crocodile is regulated by CITES
(Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
Alligator and crocodile leathers are similar in several ways, including their classic great looks, relative exclusivity and their ability to look great thru many years of service. However, based upon the body section of the donor animal, and the tanning and finishing processes utilized, the value and quality of the leather can vary widely. In selecting an accessory made from alligator or crocodile , it is far more important to consider the quality (scale pattern, softness, and finish) of the leather, rather than the species of the animal.
Generally speaking, (there are a number of variables discussed later), alligator skin is much nicer, with more symmetrical scale patterns, with thicker and softer skin, and with a smoother and more three-dimensional feel than the typical crocodile skin. Though relatively rare, top quality skins from the Nile Crocodile and Australian Saltwater Crocodile are the equal, and in some ways better, than the best alligator. Caiman, the most common type of crocodile, is generally the least desirable leather.
The most common mislabeling of alligator is on items made from the Brown Caiman from Central and South America. While caiman skins can be of good quality, caiman skin is relatively thinner and due to the less sophisticated tanning processes on finished products from South America, it is usually dryer, stiffer and less durable. For a buyer, it is unfortunate that this dryness cannot be seen in photos. One visual clue is that caiman can often be identified by small pits in their scales; these pits are far more common in caiman relative to other crocodiles, and is non-existent in genuine alligator.
What about the shape, size and pattern of the scales?
In addition to the species of alligator/crocodile, the quality of the skin varies from animal to animal and from what part of the body the skin is sourced. For smooth-skinned items, the premium sections include the central belly and throat areas where the scales are the largest and the most symmetrical around the center-line of the belly: these scales are somewhat rectangular in shape. The sides (or flanks) can also be very good quality; skin from the sides has scales that are rounded in shape and the skin is a bit thinner. The least desirable section is the tail (which represents about 50% of the animal's length); the tail skin is stiffer, has more widely spaced scales, and is more heavily scared (scarring is normal and validates that the skin is genuine; a little scarring is interesting). The best portions of the tail are suitable for belts or the internal sections of a wallet or purse.
The size of the donor animal is also important. This can offer a clue to distinguish alligator from caiman, since caiman skins usually come from smaller animals (3 to 5 feet in length; compared to 6 to 12 feet for the typical alligator or Nile Croc). With a smaller donor animal, the pattern and size of the scales transitions rapidly over the small area of the wallet or purse, such that the shape of the crocodile's body/head/tail is clearly apparent; this can be a good thing depending on the application.
While the scale pattern on all alligators and crocodiles is symmetrical relative to the centerline of the body, the scale pattern on alligators can be characteristically different than the scale pattern on crocodiles (note: each species of crocodile has somewhat unique body shape and scale pattern). The size of the scales on an alligator are more directly related to the length of the animal, such that the largest belly scales on a typical 10 foot alligator are well over one-inch square; additionally, the scales on an alligator's centerline can be noticeably larger than the size of the scales just off the centerline. In contrast, the size of the scales on a crocodile tend to be less variable (or less linear) relative to the animal's length; for example, on a 10 foot crocodile, the largest belly scales may remain under one-inch "square" (and are typically a bit less square than an alligator's scales.) Also, generally speaking, all of the scales on a crocodile's belly are more uniformly sized than on an alligator.
Once a full alligator/crocodile hide has been cut and processed into a final product, the species of the donor animal is in doubt. While the quality of the leather is apparent (again quality is the most important issue), the species is not. Given that the alligator/crocodile accessory usually represents a relatively small piece of leather from a much larger animal, and there is a great deal of variation in the scale pattern from one individual animal to another, and from the area of the body where the leather is sourced, it may be virtually impossible to determine the species. An "Genuine Alligator" or "Genuine Crocodile" stamp is of little comfort. This is another reminder to only buy from trusted suppliers, and to primarily focus on quality.
What about the "CLASSIC" (high-gloss) versus the "SAFARI" (semi-gloss and more natural) finish?
Alligator and crocodile skins are available in a variety of colors and in two primary types of finishes, the CLASSIC high-gloss, and the SAFARI gloss or semi-gloss. Your choice of finish should depend upon the application and the type of accessory.
The CLASSIC finish is the more processed, smooth shiny patent leather look that was historically associated with the finest quality exotic leather luxury items. To achieve this high gloss, a natural protein (typically albumen or raw egg-whites) is polished into the skins under high-pressure. Using a hard smooth object under the force of a high pressure glazing jack, the skin is compressed and polished to a high-gloss shine. The resulting leather is a smooth, thin high-gloss leather with tightly spaced scales (the tighter the scale pattern, the higher the pressure utilized). The downside is that the skin becomes relatively stiff, and much less durable. This finish has long been favored by European manufacturers, because it actually expands the useable area of the skin and hides otherwise visible natural imperfections. While this finish initially looks great and appears to be durable because of its hard surface, it is difficult to bend without marring with small wrinkles, and depending upon the application, it can be susceptible to damage from abrasion in normal use. The CLASSIC finish is well suited for flat surfaced luxury items that are protected from abrasion and do not require much dynamic movement; examples are a man's dress/suit belt, a breast-pocket wallet, a lady's evening bag or clutch, and other items that are carried within a purse or briefcase, such as a business card holder or writing journal.
The SAFARI finish is increasingly more popular due to its understated, more natural semi-gloss look, and its exceptional durability. The SAFARI finish is the result of low-speed, low-pressure buffing using a combination of natural waxes and oils. Because the SAFARI finish has not been subjected to excessive pressure, the leather remains soft and supple and the surface retains the natural scale pattern and the minor imperfections characteristic of a genuine alligator or crocodile skin. The SAFARI finish can be flexed repeatedly with little or no signs of wear; it is also extremely resilient to abrasion. Since the color and surface finish penetrate deeper into the leather, and the surface is naturally more three-dimensional, scratches to the SAFARI finish are much less apparent. Rather than looking worse for wear with daily use, the patina of the SAFARI finish actually gets richer and deeper over time. In addition to the practical wear advantages, there is a growing preference for this more natural look, which is difficult to imitate.
Some items cannot be easily categorized into one or the other (classic vs. safari) category. For example, to achieve some of the best qualities of both finishes, most of the "classic" items that we offer can be best described as 2/3 classic & 1/3 safari. This combination offers a relatively high gloss finish, with durability approaching that of the safari finish.
What is "HORNBACK" ?
Hornback refers to the bone-hard, horn-like scales found along the back of the alligator or crocodile. Hornback items have an interesting and unique texture, as compared to "smooth" or "belly" skin.
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Alligators are naturally colored to be camouflaged in their green and brown surroundings, so their skins are naturally a dull combination of Gray-Brown-Green. Thru the tanning and dyeing process, the skins can be dyed to almost any color. While black and browns are the most common colors, beautiful gray/silver, reds, oranges, and blue are also available. Consistency and depth of color is important, and is easier to achieve with the darker or more vivid the color; lighter colors can be inconsistent and discolor easily over time.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON BELTS:
Virtually all alligator and crocodile belts (99.9%), are made by splicing together 3 to 5 pieces of alligator/crocodile leather. On top quality belts, the alligator/crocodile leather is only a thin top layer of a multi-ply structure. Because alligator/crocodile leather is relatively flexible and elastic, it is the underlying cow leather strap (relatively stiff and inelastic) that takes all of the load.
In the making of top quality belts, care is taken to make sure that the splices are relatively well matched. However on virtually all belts, if you were to carefully inspect the belt, you can easily find the splices (while the color should be consistent, the break in the scale pattern of the leather gives the splices away; splices are at an approximately 75 degree angle to the belt). While the visual match of the splices are a good general indicator of quality, the splices are usually not an issue. Unless the splice is particularly poor, you are not going to see it once the belt is in use. Given that a belt is usually at least a couple of feet away from someone's face/eyes, and the belt is visually broken up by belt loops, the most important visual area of the belt is near the buckle. From a visual and functional stand point, absolutely no splices should be in the area of the belt holes.
While the visual aspects of the splices are typically not an issue, you want to make sure that the splices are tight, and won't get snagged on belt loops and split over time. Also, if there are obviously more than 5 pieces spliced into a normal length belt, don't buy it.