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What are the main differences between genuine crocodile, alligator and caiman leathers?


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The exotic leather sector has always provoked a fair amount of doubt and confusion among visitors and customers who don't know much about exotic leather: this is why, more often than not, we receive regular requests for help from people who, understanding the value and prestige of such a leather, would like to be certain whether their own bag or accessory, or one of our models, is made of genuine crocodile skin or if it is alligator leather, or just caiman.

Further to this, even more confusion has been created with the introduction of embossed leather that has started to look very similar to genuine reptile leather, due to new production techniques in the last few years. While at first sight, especially to the unskilled eye, these two kinds of leather might look identical, it's the difference in price that should make you reflect on them and focus a little more in your evaluation. There is a wide gap between the prices of the many varieties of reptile leather, and embossed leather in particular, so the buyer should be very alert in noticing and identifying the not always obvious differences between these leathers.

Sometimes it happens that, either for distraction or misinformation, or just due to a wrongly marked label inside the finished product – hoping to deceive the inexperienced buyer – real alligator is substituted either by crocodile, or even worse, by caiman, which is the lowest quality of all the various reptile leathers, and so the cheapest. It's not impossible to believe that sometimes the artisan himself creates confusion, by inserting incorrect labels into the items, not intending to deceive the customer, but because he doesn’t understand the importance of the question.

Having been involved in the exotic leather sector for so long, and dealing with non-European countries – which require that our products undergo very specific process in order to obtain all the necessary Cites certificates for export – we at Gleni are well aware of the general confusion that may arise on the matter: this is why we’d like to clarify things for you with a few explanations.

Differnce from alligator, crocodile and caiman leather

Note: These handbags are both made of the same high quality genuine crocodile /alligator leather. As you can see crocodile can be adapted to any style of handbag, from the most rigid structured model (like the brown handbag on the right) to the softest style (like the handbag on the left). Crocodile excellently embodies the natural shape of the handbag, making it perfectly gorgeous and incredibly supple.

First of all, in order to establish the price for a handbag, not only do we need to know the kind of leather that has been used, but also the specific tanning process it has undergone, the production techniques, the dimensions of the leather itself and, most important of all, the number of leather panels used to make the bag. There are so many parameters to take into consideration when producing the bag of your dreams: it can be made from the “belly” section of the leather, or by using the whole skin instead of stitching smaller pieces together, or just using the “best” sections of the leather, or simply the flanks or the tail of the animal. All these numerous options, not only determine a difference in appearance, but also in price.

For this reason, we will try to give you few pieces of advice to let you form a general opinion on the issue.

However, as we have always sustained, the best solution is to ask for the information directly from the seller where you bought the bag.

Genuine reptile leather and embossed leather: how to recognize them?

The first important step is to understand whether what we are holding in our hands is actually an exotic leather product or not. Concerning this question, we have written a specific article that we suggest you read, in order to identify whether genuine reptile or embossed leather has been used for your bag.
On a price level, even though embossed leather can also be of high quality and look very much like genuine crocodile leather, it should never cost as much as the latter, but should be sold at a significantly cheaper price.

Crocodile, Alligator or Caiman leather?

Caiman leather
Caiman leather
Once you are sure that you are looking at an exotic leather product, we can take into consideration the differences between crocodile (or alligator) and caiman.
Although caiman leather has been gaining more and more importance over the last few years, winning a consistent space in the market, a wrongly marked or intentionally faked label inside the product is likely to deceive the buyer, who needs rather to keep always well informed.

Moving our attention on genuine exotic leathers and, in particular looking  at the main differences between crocodile, alligator and caiman leathers, we can affirm that crocodile and alligator skin have a higher price and a superior quality to caiman leather. Their skin, in fact is softer and more flexible than genuine caiman leather. If you fold the latter, you will see that many light cracks will immediately appear on the leather itself. This substantial difference is also evident to the touch; in fact, if your bag is too rigid and rough, that means that your handbag is not made of genuine crocodile or alligator, but of caiman.

Generally crocodile and alligator skins are used (at least here in Italy, considering a medium-high standard for the products by our skilled artisans) for making bags, because the leather is more flexible and perfectly suited to this kind of production, while caiman is more  often used for accessories and shoes.

Both crocodile and alligator skins are softer and more flexible on the animal’s belly compared to caiman leather. This results in a more homogeneous and even distribution of dye in the coloring process. Dye on caiman skin, on the other hand, shows up the natural wrinkles characterizing this leather and the color appears more blotchy and irregular when applied to caiman skin.

Then, we should also take into consideration another fundamental element distinguishing these three leathers: the different shape of the scales. Crocodile and alligator scales are rounded or irregularly squared, having a more elegant and refined aspect, while the scales characterizing the caiman leather are squared but rougher than crocodile ones, and each scale is crinkled with the so called “osteoderms” similar to finger prints.

When a crocodile bag is to be produced, the leather from its belly is usually used or of its flanks because these are the softest sections, guaranteeing the producers a more refined item from a quality point of view, and making the stitching easier. However, if the crocodile back leather is used (the part closest to the back of the animal’s neck), characterized by its typical horned appearance, we can tell which animal it is according to the design of these horned scales and, especially according to the number of visible horns: the alligator has its horns disposed in the following pattern: 2-2-2; the caiman follows the natural design 4-4-2 while crocodile has its horns disposed in the following pattern: 4-2.

Alligator or Crocodile leather?

Finding out whether a finished product is made of genuine crocodile or of alligator is very difficult, given the similarity in the appearance and the softness and flexibility of these two leathers. On a price level, we can say that alligator is a little more expensive than crocodile but in general, they show the same quality, softness and smoothness. Here at Gleni, we prefer using genuine alligator for the creation of our handbags, for one main reason: the alligator has a longer body and this enables us to have a more consistent “best part” at our disposal for the production of the bag.

While it is often really hard to see the differences between reptile leathers on the finished products, (sometimes impossible even for experts, who can only rely upon the documentation of the leather that certifies its origins, the scientific name of the species and also the quality,) it is quite easy to identify the distinctive features that characterize each species when we have the opportunity to compare the whole leather panels directly..
These differences lie both in the shape (a crocodile’s body is squarer, so the central section is shorter than an alligator’s), and in the design of the scales. The alligator, in fact, shows a less homogenous pattern than the crocodile, with a few irregularities in the scales. However, this is almost impossible to distinguish on a finished product.

Regarding the distribution of the scales: on the whole panels of alligator the transition from the wide and square shaped scales of the belly to the smaller round shapes of the sides is quite sudden; with crocodile leather this transition is more gradual, with a series of medium-sized scales that slowly become smaller and more rounded.

Coccodrillo and Alligatore

Crocodile leather Alligatore leather

Alligator leather can also be identified by the so called “umbilical scar”(an elongated star shape among the belly scales), since alligator is the only exotic animal which has it. If a handbag is produced using this prestigious leather, this umbilical scar will often be prominently displayed at the front of the bag, just to testify to the authenticity of the leather.

Finally, every crocodile scale shows a distinctive pore in contrast with alligator: the presence of this pore is due to the fact that, when it is alive, the animal has sensitive hairs over the body through which it perceives the surrounding environment. During the tanning process these hairs are removed, leaving the space for a visible pore.

According to what we’ve said above, how can you tell what leather your “crocodile handbag” is made of?
  • Contact the retailer you bought your handbag from, asking for more detailed information. If the handbag has not been imported from abroad, the seller probably won’t have the Cites export document or certificate but he should be able to provide you with all the details about the species of the animal whose leather has been used to manufacture your handbag, its provenance and the authenticity of the leather itself;

  • Hae a close look at your new handbag. As we said above, if the price was suspiciously cheap, your handbag is not made of genuine exotic leather;

  • Look at the design and patterns of the scales, bearing in mind the suggestions we’ve given you above;

  • Test the softness of the leather;

  • If the handbag comes from a foreign country, we suggest that you check the invoice and, in particular make sure that what is written in the invoice is the same as what is written in the shipping documents of the item itself. The name of the species declared in the shipping documents is usually an accurate reflection of the leather used for the manufacture of the handbag and it must coincide with the name of the species declared in your invoice;

  • If the handbag, on the other hand, was purchased in the country you live in, we suggest you contact the seller directly and if the seller seems too vague in his answers, say that you have to ship this handbag abroad a foreign country and that you need the necessary documents. If he is not willing or able to provide you with them, that means that your handbag is probably made of stamped leather (although of excellent quality) or that your handbag might really made of exotic leather such as crocodile or caiman but that this leather has been obtained through illegal means and, for this reason, it is not issued with documents.

  • We also highly recommend that you never buy your exotic bag in places such as on the beach, at the market or in any other unauthorized center, but rather make your purchase only from experienced retailers of exotic leather goods who have been selling these items for years in the full respect of Cites regulations concerning the safeguard of species threatened by extinction.

In conclusion, we’d just like to remind you of one important thing: you bought your handbag because you really liked it! Now, as long as you still like it, don’t waste too much time on research, analysis and agonizing about the genuineness of your crocodile bag. Go out and enjoy wearing your beloved bag without any more ado!
To those who, on the other  hand are thinking of buying a luxury crocodile bag but who haven’t done it yet, we strongly suggest that you contact the seller, who should be able to help you, satisfying  your every question and request!


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