We asked an expert on leather to write a really simple guide to buy real leather products. These are his suggestions.
“Genuine Leather” does not mean real leather, and can in fact be fake leather or very poor quality leather.
Most real leather products will be labeled as “Full-Grain”, or sometimes just labeled as “Cowhide” or similar.
Be wary of products labeled as “Made with Full-Grain” or “Made with Genuine Leather” because while there may indeed be some real leather incorporated, it can often be just a tiny strip or piece, while the rest is something fake and cheap. Remember as well that “Genuine Leather” doesn’t mean the product is made with fake leather, as the word “genuine leather” can be applied to pretty much anything- from crappy split grain leather to Horween leather.
Avoid any leather marked as “Top-Grain*”, “Corrected Grain”(pictured above), “Split Grain”, and “Bonded.”
Some companies that make products with real leather ARE Redwing Heritage, Clarks Originals, Saddleback Leather, Oak Street Bootmakers, Quoddy, Yuketen, Dayton Boots, Viberg Boots, Schott Leather Jackets, Thorogood, Orion Leather Company, WH Earl, Sperry, Allen Edmonds, Aldens, Wolverine 1000 Mile Collection, Chippewa, LL Bean,Danner, John Lobb, Crocket and Jones, Doc Martens Made in England, Frye, Eastland Made in Maine, White’s,Tricker’s, Common Projects, and Buttero.
Before anyone comments on price, yes, real leather is expensive. It also lasts ages. On the cheaper end, your best bets are Saddleback for wallets, Orion for belts, and Clarks Originals/Chippewa/Thorogood for shoes. You won’t find a nice, real leather jacket for less than $500 unless you buy used. You might find something that’s kind of okay, but it won’t have the smooth, buttery appearance (like in the picture above) of a real leather jacket.
Word of warning: Companies like Redwing, Clarks, Doc Martens, and Wolverine make a lot of products that are not made with real leather or are otherwise poor quality. These brands have a separate line (which I linked to) that consists of higher quality goods, made with real leather and better construction (such as a Goodyear welt, etc.).
As for how to tell leather quality in person, take a look at the above image the boots on the right, with the white laces, are Doc Martens mainline (Not the Made in England line)- which are made with corrected grain leather. The boots on the left are a pair of Wolverine 1000 miles.
Real leather will usually have creases that are very tiny and wrinkle-like (Or in the case of Shell Cordovan (Made from horse in the above image), creases that look more like ripples) and natural looking compared to the sharp, abrupt creases that look like cracked plastic (often because that’s exactly what it is- minute amounts of leather coated and mixed with plastic and other guff).
Also, ignore Saddleback’s leather 101 guide, it is full of misinformation.
Top Grain leather is okay for some applications, such as furniture, but should be avoided when considering something like belts, shoes, jackets and wallets.