‘Genuine Leather’ vs. 'Full Grain Leather'

Leather is one of the most beautiful natural materials and man’s love affair with leather has continued through the ages. Many of us are fascinated with leather and take pride in owning high quality leather goods. Problem is, buying leather goods can feel like tossing a coin. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

I first dived into the world of leather-working three years ago. Since then, I have learned a few simple but important basics about leather, which I passionately feel everyone should know about.

What is Full Grain Leather? How is it different from Genuine Leather? This article discusses different types of leather and their grades.

What is 'Genuine Leather'? 

The short and simple answer is, "Genuine Leather is made partly or fully with natural animal hide".

The long answer follows:

Genuine Leather, quite simply, indicates the plain fact that a product is made with real leather; it assures you that the product is not made with plastic or rexine or any artificial materials. So, isn’t that good enough? Ask any good leather craftsperson worth his/her salt, or a true blue leather aficionado, and the answer will be a resounding “No!”.

The ‘Genuine Leather’ tag tells you nothing about the quality of the leather you are about to spend your hard-earned money on. It is a grossly misused term by the retail industry. It does not tell you which animal the leather came from. It does not tell you how thick the leather is. It does not provide any information on the source of the leather - whether it is cruelty-free, or sustainable.... I think you get my drift here. And that is why, when you buy a genuine leather item, even from a reputed brand, sometimes it fails you. Because you can never tell from the tag, whether or not the item is well made and uses quality leather.

Rewind to a couple of decades ago. Genuine Leather didn’t always have such a bad reputation. It genuinely signified a mark of authenticity and high quality. So what changed? Over the past two decades, our consumption of leather goods (and stuff, in general) increased many-fold. The demand for leather rose. Cost took precedence over quality and the most heavily discounted products sold the fastest. In this world of instant gratification and ‘value’ for money, most leather goods started being made with the lowest grade of leather, and that too, with poor production techniques. And so, as more and more cheap leather goods flooded the market, the label ‘genuine leather’ has become diluted over the years.

Today, if you are looking for authentic high quality real leather, you should run far away from a product with only a ‘genuine leather’ tag. 9 times out of 10, such products are made with split leather, the cheapest real leather in terms of quality and price. What you need to be looking for is full grain leather or corrected grain leather. Less than 10% of leather goods worldwide are made using these grades of leather. That should give you a hint about their exclusivity.

Understanding grades of leather

To know the difference between quality leather and the rest, let’s dive a bit deeper. There are two basic grades of leather — full grain leather and split leather — irrespective of which animal the hide comes from.

Both grades come from the exact same hide. What differentiated these two grades is what section of the hide the leather is made from. Tanning — the process of converting a hide into leather — also matters, but we will talk about that in another post. One thing at a time!

This picture shows a beautiful leather hide, full processed and tanned. The smooth side of the hide is called 'grain'. It is one one of the hides from our inventory, North-American origin, 6–8 mm thick. That’s really thick! No dyes or pigments have been applied on it. Look at how rich and heavy it looks. 

Take a closer look at this closeup view of the hide (below). You will see three distinct layers — the grain, the corium and the flesh. The topmost layer (grain) is the cream of the crop. This is the strongest, most beautiful section of the hide. Notice all the tiny pores on this layer. Also notice the tight, inter-twined fibrous ‘corium’, and the last of all, the thinnest section — the flesh. As you go from the grain towards the flesh, the intertwined fibres start thinning - these fibres. The densely packed fibres give strength to the leather.

A close-up view of a cross-section of full grain leather — not usually visible in finished products as they are burnished or edge painted.

What is Full-Grain Leather?

Full grain leather includes the ‘Grain’ and the Corium. This Grain is what imparts strength, beauty and character to leather. Full grain leather is used to make very long lasting, very sought-after leather products. 

So, that's it? The only distinguishing feature of full grain leather is the presence of the 'grain'? The answer is, Yes! There is nothing fancy or complicated about a full grain leather hide. It is the least-processed, most natural form, and yet it is the least commonly available and the most expensive form of leather.

The main characteristic of full grain leather is that you can see unique markings; no two hides are the same. On most hides, there may be little scars, insect bites and folds in the skin acquired by an animal over its lifetime.

We believe they tell a unique story about each piece we make. More importantly, in most cases, these markings do not in anyway impact the durability of the leather goods.

What is Split Leather?

A thick leather hide is 'split' into multiple layers after putting to use the topmost layer with the grain. When a full grain leather hide is used to make, for example, a sturdy field belt measuring 8 mm thick, the entire thickness of the hide is used up. But for most other leather items such as wallets and bags, the entire thickness of leather is never used. Take a look at the picture below. This picture shows a thick strip of leather - this comes from the flesh side of the hide - after the grain has been separated away.

By itself, it is somewhat durable, if used appropriately. But for cost effectiveness, this layer is further split into multiple layers, mostly between 0.5–0.8 mm. That’s really thin, brittle layers of leather — one of the main reasons items made with split leather don't last long!

How are these thin layers put to use? Naturally, they cannot be used in this form to make leather goods. These split layers are heavily processed and stuffed with chemicals to create supple and pliable, but very weak leather.

All that is left to do now, is to mimic the appearance of full grain leather. No problem! A common industrial process is to heat-press a grain pattern over the split layer. Once done, the finished product looks like it actually has a grain on it, sometime looking deceptively similar to full grain leather! 

Bags, wallets and a host of other 'genuine leather' products are made with this heavily processed split leather backed by cloth padding and fillers to give it structure and support.

Price vs. Quality — Full Grain Leather or Genuine Leather?

There is a high demand for split leather to manufacture low-cost, mass-produced 'genuine leather' items for the retail industry. At first glance of a brand new product, say a handbag, you may not be able to tell the difference between well-finished split leather bag, and a full grain leather bag, unless you have an expert take a really close look at it.

A full grain leather bag will cost 5-10 times more than genuine leather in material costs alone. This makes split (genuine) leather products much more attractive to manufacturers and customers alike. Why bother to buy full grain leather, then?

Split leather may be cheaper than full grain leather and top grain leather but it usually does not last beyond 1–3 years of daily use, especially since a very thin layer of leather is used on most products. Peeling and cracking are common.

When you buy full grain leather, you can rest assured that you have made a sound investment in a valuable possession. It is the best grade of leather money can buy and it can last decades if taken care of. This is also true because refined quality and highly skilled craftsmanship usually goes hand in hand with full grain leather.

Ah the joy I feel working with full grain leather. It looks and feels beautiful, gets better with age, and is ultra durable. Unlike genuine leather, or vegan leather (a clever name for PU leather), it does not end up in a landfill after 2 years of intermittent use.

Once you use a full grain leather item, there is no turning back. You will never go back to ‘genuine’ leather. So, what’s your next full grain leather purchase going to be?