I learned that alligator leather is one of the best-selling and most iconic exotic leathers in the world. It can make an excellent statement piece or add a wonderful accent to class up a piece of leatherwork.
Alligator leather is a material made from the tanned skin of alligators. It is one of the most expensive leathers, but affordable options exist. It is primarily harvested in the U.S. and tanned overseas. Alligator leather can be purchased in various colors and finishes, each with unique uses.
I bought an alligator leather backstrap a while back and wasn’t sure what to do with it. While looking for a project, I learned a lot that I’d like to share about this fascinating leather.
History of Alligator Leather
Two species of alligator exist, American and Chinese. Both have suffered from immense overharvesting and habitat loss. Due to differences in conservation techniques and existing wild populations when conservation began, the American alligator is used for commercial purposes, while the Chinese alligator is listed as critically endangered. This article will focus on American alligator leather.
While alligator has been hunted for food for thousands of years, leather usage was first recorded in 1800. It was quickly in high demand in fashion and for military use. Alligator leather was wild caught until 1962, when the season was closed for the first time because the reptile was hunted to near extinction.
It stayed closed for the next decade due to the endangerment of wild populations. The species was listed as endangered in 1967 and then added to the 1973 Endangered Species Act list.
Alligator farming began in 1962 to satisfy the market demand. By 1987 conservation efforts raised wild populations from 100,000 to two million, which led to the species being moved to the Least Concern designation, allowing for domestic and international trade.
While the wild population continues to be well managed and the farm-raised market is booming, the species continues to be monitored under the provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
CITES tags track each hide and parts of hides which protects this species and other endangered species that might be passed off as American alligators. Under CITES a uniquely numbered tag is issued before slaughter, and this number follows the hide the whole way through production. Unused tags are returned and cataloged to ensure they can’t be used to pass other species off as American alligators.
Consumers don’t need to know the CITES number for goods they own, but dealers and end makers must keep track of them for potential auditing purposes. Regulated hides also require extra processing fees per shipment (not per hide), so the price of alligator goods outside the U.S. increases. Alligator is legal in every country, and an individual may have four items on their person when traveling internationally.
Wild to domestic harvest ratio is typically around 1:10. Hunting is a primary conservation technique that helps maintain healthy ecosystems and specific populations. Alligators are a keystone species, so maintaining healthy alligator populations is vital to other species, even their prey and species they have no contact with, and the environment because they are ecosystem engineers.
Domestic harvest comes primarily from open cycle ranches that locate wild nests and remove the eggs for hatching on the ranch.
When keystone species populations get out of whack, it throws off the balance of an ecosystem. These species affect the behavior of other species, affecting more species and even how the ecosystem environment grows. Other examples are beavers, sea otters, and wolves.
Domestic harvest comes primarily from open cycle ranches that locate wild nests and remove the eggs for hatching on the ranch. This results in a high survival rate of offspring. Wild nests have a 1% survivability rate past the first year. Farm-raised alligators have an 85% survivability rate.
Of these surviving alligators, 13–17% must be returned to the wild after reaching a size that makes them less susceptible to predation. This conservation through utilization program aligns people’s goals with maintaining the species rather than exclusionary methods that seek solely to prevent poaching, such as the program the Chinese government uses. It’s hard to argue with the difference between methods; the Chinese alligator is still critically endangered while the American alligator has been listed as least concern.
Characteristics of Alligator Leather
The surface texture of alligator leather varies across the hide and in how the leather is finished. The patterning can be felt and ranges from relatively smooth to slightly pebbly to very bumpy, depending on the part of the hide. Finishes range from relatively smooth across the scales to some with three-dimensional scales.
The flexibility of alligator leather varies by the finish type, from a very flexible garment finish to sort of foldable between the scales with a bombee finish.
The softness of alligator leather varies with the finish. It is very soft to medium firm in temper.
Alligator leather is very easy to sew. It is excellent for leather products that require sewing, such as wallets, belts, bags, or watch straps.
Alligator leather is very durable. It stands up to regular and repeated usage while maintaining the same degree of flexibility and feel.
Ease of Maintenance
Alligator leather ranges from easy to maintain to finicky. Some finishes require just a normal amount of care, such as the occasional application of conditioner, and can withstand water or oil quite well. Whereas others lose all of their wonderful properties if not cared for in a specific manner.
Alligator leather can be found in dozens of stock colors, and tanneries can even color-match samples if desired.
The waterproofness of alligator leather varies depending on the finish. Some are relatively waterproof, shedding water quite well, while others are completely ruined by water.
Alligator is one of the most expensive leathers in the world. Prices range from $25/lb for scrap to $1000+ for large pristine skins with the most expensive finish.
For grading, alligator hides are divided into quadrants with a center line vertically down the middle and horizontally across the middle.
- Grade one – no defects
- Grade ½ – One defect in one quadrant. One or more minor defects toward the edge of the skin.
- Grade ⅔ – One defect in two quadrants. One or more major defects towards the edge of the skin.
- Grade ¾ – One defect in three quadrants. One defect towards the center of the skin.
- Grade ⅘ – One defect in all four quadrants. One or more major defects towards the center of the skin.
Grading is more subjective than this, but this gives a basic idea of what to expect. Wild skins don’t include head/tail in grading, while farmed skins are more strict because skins are typically more pristine than their wild counterparts.
Alligator leather is sold by the centimeter measured horizontally at the widest part of the belly. It is generally sold by the whole hide and ranges from 19–80cm wide to 3–14ft in total length. The most common size range is 20–29cm wide and 6–8ft long because most skins come from farm raised animals.
The largest skins come from wild-caught alligators because raising them past 3-7 years old isn’t economical. This size does not translate to a large amount of usable hide; a medium-sized 34cm hide might only have 1 square foot of usable belly rather than the 6 square feet the overall dimensions might suggest.
That isn’t to say the remaining hide isn’t great leather; it’s just that the natural shape of the hide limits what it can be used to make. Domestically raised hides are wider than wild hides because they eat every day, while wild alligators can go as long as two to three years without eating if necessary.
Alligator leather varies in thickness from .5–2mm depending on the size of the hide and the finish used. Larger hides are from older animals, so they have greater thickness. Garment is the thinnest finish, bombee is equally thin but is backed with cork or cowhide, which puts it in the middle of the range, and many of the other finishes round out the top of the range.
Pros and Cons of Alligator Leather
Pros of Alligator Leather
- Conservation through use programs have saved the American alligator from extinction and could serve as a model for other endangered species.
- Wide range of attributes makes it suitable for a wide range of products
- Accents can really class up a project while also keeping costs down
- Excellent return on investment due to the market value of alligator products
- Very durable
Cons of Alligator Leather
- Hides are expensive
- Some finishes can be easily ruined from wetness or improper care — a huge risk for such expensive items.
Production Statistics of Alligator Leather
Based on 2019 data, alligators are raised and harvested in the U.S. while almost entirely exported as raw skins for tanning in other countries.
- Volume per year – 507,551 total
- 33,629 wild
- 473,922 farmed
- Key production country – United States
- Louisiana – 16,290 wild; 434,774 farmed
- Florida – 17,339 wild; 39,148 farmed
- Biggest exporting country
- United States of America
- Biggest importing country
- Italy, 45%
- France, 33%
- Singapore, 21%
- Malaysia, .5%
How Alligator Leather is Made
According to Pan American Leathers, a lengthy, detailed, and delicate set of steps is used to turn an alligator skin into leather via the tanning process.
- The animal is skinned.
- The skin is salted for temporary preservation.
- A shaving machine individually stretches and fleshes the inside of the hide.
- The hides are soaked in a drum of lime (calcium hydroxide) for two days. This chemically alters the hide by dissolving scales, saponifying fat (turning to soap), making the naturally dark pigments soluble, and opening up the skin pores.
- Ammonium chloride is used to neutralize the lime partially.
- Enzymes (proteins that speed up a chemical reaction) are used to soften the hides.
- Potassium permanganate is used to bleach the hides.
- Sodium bisulfate bleaches the hides further.
- After several hours of chemical processing and liming, the hides are agitated for several days in hydrochloric acid.
- The hides spend three days in a bath of chromium salts. The result is a stable hide called “wet blue.” All previous steps can dissolve or destroy the hide if soaked for too long.
- The remaining solution is removed from the hide but is left damp. They can remain stored in this state for up to six months with no quality loss.
- The hides are then split to an even thickness of .5–2mm thick.
- Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is lastly used to neutralize the chromium. This completes the tanning process.
- Synthetic tannins are used to re-tan the hides, lightening the hides.
- Synthetic fat liquors are used to “stuff” the hides, which returns some flexibility and suppleness to the hides.
- The hides are clipped to a drying rack with holes throughout. This spreads the hide out and allows for maximum airflow to aid in even drying. The hide is now known as “crust.” It is white and ready for dying and final finishing. Some hides are sold in this unfinished state.
- Dying and finishing are closely guarded industry secrets. As many as 30 individual steps are involved in dying skins. The only other known components possibly require different chemicals, fat liquors, proteins, and machines depending on the color and desired finish.
- Color correction is done by spraying hides one at a time to achieve uniform color across the hide. The hides are now ready for sale.
While skins can be sourced legally through outlets such as eBay, Amazon, or Etsy, they are more likely to pass off other crocodilian species as alligators.
Cost of Alligator Leather
Alligator leather is sold by the centimeter and grade. This measurement is taken horizontally across the widest part of the belly. Whole hides can be purchased as hornback (sliced vertically down the belly) or as belly (sliced vertically down the back). Tails, flanks, backstraps, legs, and scrap can also be purchased but are harder to find.
Purchasing overrun (excess or unsold volume from special orders) from a tannery will always be cheaper than purchasing from a leather dealer, but the availability is limited. Tanneries also generally have a stock of existing colors and finishes but may not post these online, so it’s best to contact them to determine their stock.
Purchasing from a leather dealer is more expensive, but they generally have a wider range of colors and finishes because they order in bulk. Tanneries have minimum order sizes for custom runs of 250 cm for already developed colors/finishes and 500 cm for new custom orders. The belly is the most expensive because it has the most uses.
Hornback is less expensive than belly because the back scales reduce the possible uses. Price increases depending if the leather is from the belly or hornback and the grade, size, and finish, also whether they’re from a farm or the wild.
Partial skins are considerably less expensive than full skins but come with correspondingly limited uses, sizes, and availability and are best sourced from tanneries for availability and legality reasons. Prices range from $25/lb for scrap to $1000+ for large pristine skins with the most expensive finish.
While skins can be sourced legally through outlets such as eBay, Amazon, or Etsy, they are more likely to pass off other crocodilian species as alligators. This doesn’t mean their products aren’t following CITES laws, but it makes this more likely than going through an established retailer or tannery. It also opens the buyer up to purchasing embossed cowhide rather than genuine alligator leather.
Popular Uses for Alligator Leather
- Watch straps
Tips for working with Alligator Leather
- Be well-practiced with the project type and leather in general. Making mistakes with alligator leather is much more costly compared to cowhide.
- Keep in mind that the tiles and skin between tiles are different densities. The softer tissue is more difficult to stitch and less durable, so avoid laying stitch lines down these seams.
- Edges can be turned, edge painted, or finished with decorative stitching.
Popular Alligator Leather Products and Sizes for Making Them
|Product||Size of skin in cm||Number of Skins|
|Handbag||25–60||2–4 per bag|
|Shoes||25–40||2 per pair|
|Jacket||35–59||5-20 per jacket|
|Skirt||40–50||3–4 per skirt|
|Belt-spliced||38–55||5–10 belts per skin|
|Belt-1 piece||50–59||2–4 belts per skin|
|Chair||65–80||4–5 per chair|
After tanning, alligator leather comes in various finishes. These finishes impart different qualities to the leather, making it more or less suitable for specific uses.
- Crust – undyed and unfinished skin. They are white and can be dyed and finished by the end user.
- Matte – an oil and water-resistant finish that breaks (folds when bent) to a mild degree.
- Millennium – This finish combines the best of matte and glazed. It has the durability of matte with the shine of glazed but also no break.
- Glazed/Classic – A very shiny finish achieved with a machine called a glazing jack with an agate stone that is firm and has a strong break when bending. It shouldn’t ever get wet. Best used for handbags.
- Bombee (pronounced “bom-bay”) – Bombee is first glazed, then split very thinly. Dry heat is applied, then glazed again, and finally, the piece is backed with cowhide or cork to provide more structure to the leather. The result is leather that has a three-dimensional appearance because the chromium salts tighten up as the skin dries from the heat. This finish is wonderful for bag making.
- Garment – A very lightweight finish with a fabric-like drape. As the name implies, this finish is used for clothing but is also good for lightweight bags.
- Bulletproof – Even more durable than matte, this finish is excellent for high-use items and moisture and oils exposure.
- Nubuck/Suede – Nubuck is buffed to achieve a velvety nap and treated to be water resistant. Excellent for footwear.
- Metallic – Precious metals are applied in a thin layer that sits on top of the hide. Best for items that don’t see much wear and tear.
- Pearl – A thin layer of pearl is applied to the top of the hide, giving it a pearlescent appearance.
- Antique – A two-tone finish where the space between scales is darker than the scales themselves. Soluble dyes penetrate the leather while still showing the surface texture, and a top coat is applied to prevent transfer (semi-aniline).
To learn more about the basics of alligator and crocodile leather, check out this helpful tutorial by Christy Plott from American Tanning and Leather.
How Can You Tell Fake Alligator Leather?
Given my lack of experience with alligator leather, I reached out to Christy Plott, one of the owners of American Tanning and Leather, to make sure the piece I have is genuine alligator leather. The tannery is one of the premier crocodilian tanneries in the world, so I knew they’d have the info I was looking for.
She was very helpful and directed me to a key state department for information on spotting genuine alligators. According to the Louisiana Advisory Council, there are many excellent ways to determine if “alligator leather” is genuine.
- CITES tags (found at the tip of the tail) are the best way to determine if something is genuine alligator leather and not another species being passed off as it. If there is no tag or the reference number can’t be provided and accurately traced for leather pieces, then don’t buy it.
- For finished leather goods, the tag doesn’t have to be given to the purchaser, but the seller should be able to provide the buyer with said tag number upon request. If the seller refuses to do this, there is a good chance they are acting unscrupulously.
- Embossed cowhide
- Embossed leather has a pattern that is pressed into it while damp using a machine with a roller drum with a pattern on it. The belly and flank is the area that gets copied; two of the same item will be identical, whereas genuine alligator leather has natural variations in the pattern.
- Pattern is uniform, and very repetitive
- Genuine alligator will be flank/belly/flank or belly/flank/hornback/flank/belly.
- Embossed leather might go belly/flank/belly because the maker didn’t know enough about where to cut the pattern
- Genuine alligator
- Crown – 2x2x2 bones
- Belly scales – more rounded at the corners
- Flank – very pebbly, small scales, quick transition from belly scales to flank scales
- Umbilical scar – found on the belly/lower abdomen alligator is the only crocodilian species to have an umbilical scar
- Tail – much wider than other species. A more pronounced fin makes backstraps more difficult to create, so be wary of backstraps being passed off as the wrong species.
- Crown – 4x2x2 bones
- Belly scales – corners are more angular than alligator
- Flank – Nile: larger flank scales & Saltwater: small pebbled flanks
- ISO – Small dot in one corner of belly scales. Integumentary sensory organ. One of the best ways to tell something is not alligator
- Tail – V shape with very straight sides. Less pronounced fin, which makes the tail lie flat
- The scales are much more solid because the calcium doesn’t break down as well during tanning, and the break is thus much more pronounced
- Similar flank to a saltwater crocodile, and alligator
Alligator Leather Care and Maintenance
How to Clean Alligator Leather
- Remove excess moisture as soon as possible. More than any other substance, water can potentially damage the leather.
- Hang the leather item up to dry. Desiccant packets can be especially helpful for bags or enclosed spaces such as footwear. Do *not* use heat or especially sunlight to dry alligator leather because these will damage the material.
- Brush excess dirt off with a soft-bristled brush. Fine grit dirt can be removed with a damp cloth, but the drying process will need to be repeated.
How to Condition Alligator Leather
- Use a reptile/crocodilian-specific leather conditioner to maintain the suppleness and quality of alligator leather.
- Follow the directions for that specific conditioner, making sure first to test it in an inconspicuous location in case it doesn’t react well with the leather.
- This should be done regularly, especially after the leather has gotten wet or dirty.
- Do *not* apply to dirty or wet leather because this can lock in the dirt or moisture, further ruining the leather item more than if left alone.
How to Store Alligator Leather
- Store in a cool, dry place such as a closet.
- Desiccant packets can help keep bags or enclosed spaces such as footwear nice and dry, thus maintaining the quality of the leather for longer.
- Hang, rather than fold, alligator leather goods to prevent cracking or creasing.
- Belts should be hung by the buckle rather than rolled up and stored in a drawer.
- Watch straps should be stored either flat or in a closed position to prevent cracking.
- Bags and luggage should be stored in the closet on a shelf or elsewhere where they can sit in their natural closed position. Hanging will create sag points or otherwise misshape the bag. Stuff with wadded-up dye-free paper to maintain the bag shape if necessary; newspaper ink might rub off on the leather.
Why is alligator leather so expensive?
Alligator leather is primarily so expensive because it is so rare. While nearly 100 million cattle are harvested annually, barely 500,000 alligators are harvested.
Is alligator leather real?
Genuine alligator leather is real. Some people try to pass off other species as alligator leather because of its price point. CITES tags protect alligators and other crocodilian species, which may or may not be legal in most countries, that might otherwise be passed off as alligators, which is legal everywhere.
Is alligator leather durable?
Alligator is generally very durable, but if durability is key, ensure the right finish is selected.
Is alligator leather soft?
Alligator leather can be very soft with the right finish. While non-garment finishes aren’t as soft as garment they’re still much softer than might otherwise be assumed.
Is alligator leather waterproof?
Many people assume because they are amphibious species, all crocodilian leather is automatically waterproof, but that is not the case because the tanning process changes the properties of the skin. It depends heavily on the finish. Some are waterproof, while others will be utterly ruined if it gets wet.
Alligator leather is a wonderful product with many unique properties not found in most other leather goods. Because of these desirable properties, it can be a wonderful addition to a project or make for high-end leather goods.
Its scale patterning makes it stand out in a way that other leathers do not, so it works great as a statement piece to class up an ensemble. Working with it can be challenging, but the end results are well worth the effort.
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