They Made Exotic Leather Shoes Out of What?!
Summary: The final guide to animal leather hides you’ll ever need to read. We cover exotic animals - such as ostrich, crocodile, elephant, camel, and others. Yes, even endangered species.
"A" is for Alligator
Read the Alphabetical List of Exotic Animal Leathers, further down 👇🏽
Photo: Crock Stock and Barra - group holding an American alligator hide
Source: Florine Leather & Style - Crazy Animal Leather Guide
Some of these animals you may know, some you may not. Popular leathers are made from more common animals like cow, calf, deer, and sheep. Exotic leathers are made from lesser-known animals like ostrich, buffalo, kangaroo, and stingray .
Source: shoepassion.com [Box Calf, Cowhide, Chevreau, Cordovan, Ostrich, Crocodile]
Before we get started...
A Word About Ethics
The world is not a perfect place. In Africa, elephants are killed by poachers for their ivory tusks. In Malaysia, pangolins, an endangered species of anteater are smuggled into Vietnam because people there find them to be a delicacy .
We at Leather Care Supply just want to educate the public. These leathers are out there and they exist. We want to help our readers learn to identify them by sight and texture. Nothing more, nothing less.
(We may decide to debate the ethical ramifications of a global meat-based agribusiness in a later blog. But for now, we have higher priority content we’d like to rank for on Google).
The facts remain that 1. Most exotic leathers are legally sourced, 2. Animals are hunted within season and for good reason, and 3. Animal-free vegan leather is less biodegradable than regular leather . In addition, regulating bodies like CITIES protects over 35,000 species of animals and plants from poachers and illegal trade.
How Leather is Processed from Animals
In the history of leather,  we covered how rawhides are conditioned, treated, and tanned. Once a hide has been removed, or skinned, from an animal, the collagen cells are “neutralised” with a vegetable or mineral compound to prevent them from degrading at a natural speed.
Photo: CP Slippers - leather grains
Generally, the closer to the flesh the leather is, the softer it is (i.e. suede and nubuck). Full grain and top grain leathers are tougher to the touch.
This makes sense if you think about it.
An animal’s exterior hide needs to be tougher to stand up to fights, predators, and environmental hazards. The most expensive leathers come from the areas of the animal that are less exposed to damage.
Photo: Octane Seating.com - The best parts of a four-legged animal (cows, sheep, deer, etc) are harvested at the base of the spine.
An Alphabetical List of Exotic Animal Leathers
There are as many leather sources as there are animals. Here they are in alphabetical order!
One of earth’s oldest living species, alligators are a remnant of the era of dinosaurs. They’ve been on the planet for over 70 million years.
Important: Alligators and crocodiles are different species. How can you tell the difference? Alligators have wide U-shaped noses. Crocodiles have pointed V-shaped noses.
Color Alligator skins come in a dull grey or dark olive color. They produce a durable and expensive leather.
Texture Two parts of the alligator are used: 1) the smooth under-belly (belly of the animal) and 2) the hard scales (back of the animal). The under-belly is marked by squares that get larger towards the center of the hide. The hard scales (referred to as “hornback”) consist of the bony plates on the exterior that give the animal its armor.
Price Caiman alligator = $, Nile Crocodile = $$, American Alligator = $$$
Photo: Alligator Leather.net - under-belly of the alligator
Photo: Rojé Exotics American Leathers - wild American alligator hornback
Anteaters have a long snout which they use to hunt for ants. The animal is on the endangered species list, which makes this leather hard to come by; we haven’t found a company that is currently working with anteater leather. Most skins originate in Asia and Africa, including pangolins, mentioned earlier.
Texture The scales or tiles are in the shape of a baseball diamond. It is sometimes mistaken for alligator, however the diamonds are the same size throughout the leather hide, whereas those of the alligator get smaller as the scales envelop the back. Anteater leather colors range from tan, to beige, brown, cherry, and black.
Source: Style Forum - Lucchese cowboy boots made from anteater
Bison & Buffalo
“Bison” and “buffalo” are used interchangeably in the U.S.
Bison leather has a distinct grain, with around 40% more tensile strength than traditional cow hide. Since the hides are not stretched like cowhide, bison and buffalo leather is thicker and more durable than traditional cowhide.
Photo: Montana Leather.com - buffalo and bison Leather
Color Buffalo leather can come in a variety of colors, from very light, to very dark. This includes white, matte, yellow, tan, chestnut, peanut, tobacco, russet, oxblood, burgundy, brown, and black. Even green! 💚
Texture Depending on where on the animal the hide was harvested, buffalo leather can vary in texture. Generally, it has jagged, un-uniform ridges and valleys. Some manufacturers may decide to remove the full-grain (which looks more rough and cavernous) in favor of the smoother top grain. Streak marks and scarring can be visible if the animal was in a fight.
Camels are valuable animals to local inhabitants of northern Africa, central Asia, and the Middle East. As such, the hides are only taken if the animal dies naturally. Because of their rarity, camel pelts rarely see entry into the global market.
Tan, caramel, and desert orange are the primary camel hide colors. Camel hides are smooth like cowhide, but have a lighter pattern. Texture-wise, camel contains 10 times as many fibers per square centimeter as cow leather . Camel hides evoke a “soft touch.” They are typically sueded to a softer finish.
Photo: Blu Dot & Leather Dictionary - camel leather handbag & camel leather hide
Cowhide is the most used leather for all footwear. Cowhide acts as the standard by which all other leathers are compared. Cowhide is the least expensive of all leathers. Bovine leather, vachetta leather, and calf leather all fall under the umbrella of cow leather.
Cowhide is plentiful and available in a wide variety of colors. The texture of cowhide is smooth when the grain is removed. When the hair is left on, the color of the cow’s hair becomes visible.
Picture: Rva Creativity Awards - cow leather ottoman. The top of the ottoman is made of smooth grain leather. The sides are made of full grain leather where the hair is still left on.
Word of warning: Cowhide is easily stamped and colored to imitate other leathers, including kangaroo, bison, deerskin and zebra!
There are 23 living species of crocodiles. They are found all over the world, but primarily in Central America, Africa, India and Australia. Crocodile skin is virtually identical to alligator. A trained expert will know to look for the tiny pinhole in the center of each scale - the sole way to distinguish crocodile from alligator.
“Buttercream, buttercream, croc skin, buttercream.” -Jeremy Piven, Rush Hour 2
Source: Gentleman’s Gazette - Gucci Horsebit Loafer in brown crocodile leather retail price $2,600
Deerskin (buckskin) is associated with Native American. There are 30 million deer in the world. The largest species of deer is the moose. Deer, elk, reindeer (caribou), roe deer, and the moose all belong to the Cervidae family.
Deer is soft, pliable, and more porous than cowhide, making it easier to tear - but softer than cowhide. Its texture is supple and soft. It conforms to the outline of the body, a form-fitting leather. Buckskin is usually smoked with woodsmoke, which turns it from a desirable white color, into an even more prized honey color.
Source: Buckskin Leather - Deer Leather types
Eel is a long fish without scales. Although there are many species of eel, they all tend to have a shiny appearance and a horizontal stripe-like pattern. The texture is soft, the leather bends well, and can be sewn together by needlework and thread rather easily. The material has a texture similar to fabric, and is sold in sheets. Eel is commonly called the “Silk of the Ocean.”
Source: Style Forum - eel leather loafers
Photo: BuyLeatherOnline - Eel leather fabrics (dyed)
Elephants have been hunted by poachers for their tusks. Now, National Geographic reports  that they are also being hunted for their leather.
We love elephants. I personally love r/babyelephantgifs  - the baby elephants are just so cuute!
Regardless of our emotional attachment to these majestic and intelligent creatures it is legal to buy and sell them under the conventions laid out in the Convention Of International Treaty Of Endangered Species (CITES).
Color Elephant leather has a dullish tinge. It can be dyed just like cow and eel leather, creating a variety of colors and effects. Typical colors are original grey, honey, and vintage peat.
Texture Elephant skin texture consists of cracked triangle and square shaped grooves. These grooves are the distinct marking of an elephant; they fold and collapse on themselves in a random pattern.
Picture: American Exotics & 123RF.com- elephant leather hides
Did you know that in 2012 Jay-Z once ordered a pair of elephant leather sneakers?
Picture: Getty Images - Jay Z & Beyonce - Jay Z’s bespoke Jordan 1's by Pimp My Kicks (PMK customs) designed by Brooklyn Zoo - shoes made from Alligator, Stingray, Boa, Calf, Python, Ostrich, Crocodile, Lizard, and, surprisingly, Elephant
Picture: Style Forum - a vintage Hermes elephant-hide shoulder bag
Fish can include catfish, carp, salmon, cod, tilapia, perch, and others. Generally, fish have fine scales that glisten and catch the light. Light seems to naturally sparkle off this shoe, especially if they are glazed with a finisher. The fish skin is tanned like other animal skins.
Color any color of the rainbow
Texture scales, laid on top of one another in pattern formation
Fun fact about fish leather: Fish leather comes from a by-product of the food industry which means that fish are killed for their flesh, not for their skins.
Photo: Style Forum - antique salmon leather coat exhibited in a leather history museum
The giraffe is the tallest living land mammal. They are distinguished by an extremely long neck, which can make it unwieldy in the African sahara, especially when it is time for them to drink water. When drinking, giraffes must stand both legs wide apart, which leaves them open to attack from carnivorous predators. They drink water about once a week, and receive most of their moisture from the leaves, fruits, and flowers they eat. They only sleep for about two hours a day, and have been known to fall asleep standing up.
Giraffes, along with camels and zebras, are among the most difficult exotic animals to procure. Most giraffes can only be obtained from Africa, and, as with camels, tanners must wait for the animal to die of natural causes before it is skinned. As with zebras, you will need a permit to import the hide.
Color Giraffe hide The distinctive coat is far more valuable than the hide by itself, which is why the hair on giraffe hides is left on. Look for trapezoidal spots in the foreground, and a white background in the back.
Texture Giraffe has a texture similar to deer. They don’t have too much hair on their body, and when the hide arrives it should be medium grain, not too soft, not too course to the touch.
Photo: Safari Works Taxidermy Sales, Hides of Africa, ZebraHides.com - giraffe leather hides
Native to Australia, Kangaroos are the largest marsupials on land. When they hop they can use locomotion to save energy and travel long distances in search of food and water.
Kangaroo leather is used to craft items like The unique structure of kangaroo leather allows it to be cut down to very thin substance (thickness of the leather) but still retain strength. It’s the material most commonly used in bullwhips as it retains both its strength and its flexibility.
Color Kangaroos come in tan, creme, beige, whisky, and black.
Texture Kangaroo leather is filled with elastin, allowing it to stretch much further than cowhide. Thinner than cowhide and goatskin, kangaroo hides are comprised of finely concentrated collagen fibers. Kangaroo hide has very low fat content. On the downside, kangaroo leather creases easily, and darkens faster, developing a more rosy patina over time when compared to other animal hides .
Photo: Stride Wise - kangaroo leather
Teju Lizard. There are many lizard leathers available out there. Teju lizard is popular in the areas of New Mexico and Arizona. Teju lizard has a “Breaking Bad” vibe to it. It features a repeating square pattern, and is reported by Pan American Leathers as an easy hide to work with.
Photo: Alligator Mall.com - Tegu lizard cowboy boot
Komodo Dragon Lizard. The komodo dragon is less of a lizard and more of a reptilian goliath. They are the sole predators on the Indonesian islands where they make their home. They have a poisonous bite, which Bloomberg reported to have a potential cure for malaria if studied .
Photo: KeleenLeathers.com - Komodo-Dragon Hide - looks eerily similar to alligator hornback but note that the line patterns run east and west, (not north to south as they do on the alligator)
When a village in India had many of its cows die, the locals began using komodo dragons as a leather source .
We anticipate that a brave leather manufacturer will see an unfulfilled need in the luxury goods market and bring this beastly animal to the U.S. market - just as Mark Chris did with stingray leather . (Quick story: Before Mark explored the feasibility of working with stingray leather, many manufacturers shied away from it, deeming it too difficult to work with. Perhaps history shall repeat itself with the deadly komodo dragon).
Ostrich is the easiest recognizable leather on this list! If you learn nothing here, you will walk away knowing this - I promise!
Texture Ostrich leather has a characteristic “goose bump.” The bumps are spaced far apart, and are prominent. (From these bumps the ostrich’s feathers come out). Between these quill bumps is a smooth surface. In addition, the material is surprisingly durable and stands the test of time.
Ostrich leathers are expensive. The cost for most items is between $500 - $5000. Luxury designers such as Prada, Hermès, Smythson, Bottega Veneta and Gucci, continue to make this exotic skin part of their handbag and shoe collections. Louis Vuitton has also popularized the use of ostrich skins, most notably in 2006, with a specially ordered ostrich skin that was $10,800 .
Color Ostrich can come in a variety of colors, including hot pink.
Picture: Ostrich Market ostrich styles and shapes
“Shark” is a catch-all term. There are over 500 species of shark, each vastly different from another when it comes to their hides.
Generally, shark is a rugged skin, extremely rough, and difficult to scuff. Some sharks have ultra rigid skins that are hard to break in, while other shaks have flexible skins. Shark skin tends to have positive water-reflecting properties. As a shoe, however, they tend to be hotter on the foot due to the shark’s tissue being less porous than animals with hair, feathers, sweat glands, and flexible membranes.
Texture Shark skin is difficult to work with. Shark skin is covered with small, tubercules, which are bony notches that gives protection to the animal but makes the cobbler’s job infinitely more difficult.
Color Shark skin naturally comes in black, brown, grey and tan. The hide can be dyed with difficulty.
Picture: The Shoe Aristocat - Bestetti Shark hide Chukka boots
Snakes comprise pythons, boas, anacondas, rattlesnakes, water-snakes, and sea-snakes. Only an experienced cobbler could tell them apart. Of all the snake skins, python is the most durable.
Colors & Texture Although snakeskin can come in a variety of colors look for contrasting colors as a dead give-away. Typically one side will have smatterings of a lighter color, while the other will have just the opposite. Natural color snakeskin is a combination of a white background with brown or black markings. Be sure to feel for the recognizable scales of a snake.
Like alligators, snakes can be belly cut or back cut. Belly cut yields a smaller and distinctive pattern. Back cut allows the wide belly scales to have prominence on the top.
Snakes are beguiling in their beauty. Be sure to give them their space and respect, both in fashion and in life. Take a look at these wicked hides.
Photo: Shutterstock - python leather types
Photo: Christian Louboutin Decollete - water snake and python red-bottom heels
From our blog: How to care for your Louboutins
Photo: Top: Python men’s boots. Bottom: Michael Schumacher Starboot, made of karung skin
Stingray leather has a bumpy texture. Ridges or nodules decorate the hide, giving it that coarse-caviar-like texture that has made the material famous.
The scientific name for stingray leather is shagreen. Named so after the French word chagrin, the roughness of its texture also meant a state of coarseness, rudeness, or unrefinedness. The beads are made of calcium; and calcium is not easy to sand down or bend.
Color In the wild, stingray comes in black, grey, marble, and tan. It can be dyed to whatever color the cobbler sees fit.
Texture Its beads feel like hardened nodules. This is one of the exotic leather types that you just want to rub your hands over it. Fine pebbles. Like caviar. The skin is so tough, and breaks so many needles, that not all bootmakers will work with it.
From our blog: 8 Things About Stingray Shoes
Photo: Style Forum.net - blue stingray clutch purse
Zebras are one of the most recognizable animals in the world. Distinct for its black and white striped pattern, this is arguably one the most exotic hides on this list. To the touch it feels most like horsehair. The distinctive black and white coat are far more valuable than the hide by itself. Similar to cordovan, the hair and epidermis of the zebra is left in place.
Picture: Roje Leather - zebra hide used as a rug
The only zebra that can be harvested for its hide is the plains zebra, or the Equus Burchell. This sub-species is not endangered, and can be hunted in Africa with a permit. They can be purchased online as a full hide, however, a permit is needed before the zebra skin can enter the designated country of origin. If purchasing zebra hide, beware merchants trying to dye calfskin and cordovan, passing it off as genuine zebra.
You’ve learned the A, B, C’s of leather!
You should know how to properly identify each animal by their hide color and texture.
Now see if you can identify the different styles of leathers used in the multi-exotic leather purse below. Leave your answer in the comments.
Photo: Gianfranco Ferre
In Love with Leather
Leather is one of the most versatile, beloved and time-tested materials. Leather can be used in the fabrication of belts, shoes, and luxury loafers. Truly, leather care is found everywhere, from antique cars, to motorcycles, horse saddlery, furniture, and boating interiors. (Click on any of these links to be directed to our blog)
How to Clean Your Leather
Clean it with a repertoire of leather cleaning products. They’re available on Leather Care Supply online store.
Teachers, Students, and Military, Police, and Firefighters can receive a 15% off discount on this page. We thank you for your service.
- Alex Pop