Among all exotic leathers, crocodile and, particularly, alligator are some of the most well-known and well-liked skins, but also among the most expensive options out there. Consider prices of $600 for a wallet, $900 for a watch strap from Omega, a pair of $3,300 Gucci loafers, or maybe a $15,000 Franklin briefcase. Let’s take a deep dive to find out why they’re heftily priced!
While it seems absurd at first, there are many reasons why alligator and crocodile leather goods are a lot more expensive than, let’s say, calf or bullhide leather goods. So, we discuss the terminology, then how the hides are tanned. We also talk about sizing, grading, manufacturing, and anything else that impacts the price of an alligator or crocodile leather good.
Frankly, as a kid, I thought alligators and crocodiles were all the same. I wasn’t aware of all the different subspecies. Basically, you have alligators, caimans, crocodiles, gharials, and false gharials. All of these are crocodilians, but not all of them are crocodiles.
All these animals’ skin can be used to produce leather and, in recent years, caiman has been more popular as it is a lot more affordable than, let’s say, alligator leather. If you have an eye for detail, you’ll notice it’s not an alligator, but a lot of people won’t notice. And the leather is not as nice. It will probably crack more easily. But, if it costs less and gets you almost there, it can be very tempting for many.
Today, however, we’re only going to be talking about crocodile and alligator leather. Both are semi-aquatic predators and some of the species today are extinct or close to extinction. For example, the Chinese alligator is critically endangered. Because of that, you cannot legally hunt those animals. That leaves the American alligator as the only alligator that can be harvested for leather today.
On the flip side, there are almost two dozen species of crocodiles in existence. So, how are crocodiles different from alligators? Well, typically, they’re larger animals. They’re spread across Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australia.
The crocodile species most commonly used for leathers are the Nile crocodile, the New Guinea crocodile, saltwater crocodile, and Siamese crocodile. Even though there are subtle details between those four species, we’re not gonna go into those and just distinguish more broadly between alligator and crocodile.
History of Crocodile & Alligator Leather
One may think that alligator and crocodile are fairly recent luxury phenomenon, but it is not. Alligator hides and leathers have been used for centuries in areas where they naturally occurred. For example, crocodile skin armor was used for religious ceremonies in Roman Egypt in the 3rd century AD. Alligator and crocodile skins were also traded among native tribes in North America who used the animals as a source of food.
Just look at this engraving from Theodor de Bry from 1591 that shows Timucua tribesmen trying to hunt a massively oversized alligator or crocodile. Marco Polo also encountered Chinese alligators and mentioned how prized and expensive their hides were.
Nevertheless, until the 19th century, alligator and crocodile leather remained rather rare because it wasn’t until then that a more soft, supple, and usable crocodile or alligator leather could be developed. But, in the late 1860s, alligator leather was a prized resource in North America, for example. While the Southern US was the main exporter of alligator skins, Africa and Asia had crocodile skins.
The only method to get those skins was to hunt wild animals. In 1892, the American writer and conservationist Kirk Monroe recorded his experiences hunting for an alligator in conjunction with tribesmen. Monroe wrote that two seminal tribesmen were able to kill 24 alligators in one night. If you add that up, they killed over a hundred over the span of a week. They merely received 50 cents per hide from the traders, which is roughly about $15 in today’s money. So, obviously, that was quite cheap.
Why is alligator leather so expensive, then? Well, by 1962, the species were so endangered that wild hunting of alligators had to stop. Because of that, alligator farms now started growing the animals with a specific intent of leather production. Similar farms, soon thereafter, developed across the globe, focusing on raising crocodiles.
Meanwhile, the Chinese alligator became critically endangered because the habitat got lost and people just hunted too much. In America, the protection plan worked and, by the late 1980s, the wild population was back to healthy levels. On the other hand, the Chinese alligators never really recovered fully and it’s estimated that there are still around a few thousand that live in the wild, but also quite a few more who live in captivity.
Alligator and Crocodile Harvesting Today
Today, about 750,000 alligator skins and 750,000 crocodile skins are harvested annually. That seems like a big number. But, if you compare it to the 350 million cowhides that are tanned every year, you realize that the alligator and the crocodile are just about 0.2% of that.
The vast majority of alligator and crocodile skins today come from breeding farms. You can find them in Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Southern US. Some of these farms are directly owned by luxury brands. For example, Hermes owns their own crocodile and alligator farms, and these are not small – they hold thousands of animals.
Because the wild alligator population in the US has stabilized, there are very clear rules about how many animals can be harvested each year. Maybe you’ve heard the American show Swamp People, but it has become more aware for people that wild alligators are still hunted that way.
The trade of wild alligator hunting is not as lucrative and popular anymore as it used to be. In 2019, about 2,000 hunters in Louisiana got about 20,000 skins; compare that to 450,000 skins from the farms.
As you can imagine, it’s hard to keep alligator hides pristine in the wild and, frankly, less than 5% of all wild, caught alligator skins qualify as “top quality” because most customers desire unblemished belly skins from the alligator. There are some farms that really pay attention that animals don’t accidentally bruise themselves and they even employ padding.
That being said, even in captivity, the alligators and crocodiles still spar with each other. Sometimes it can also suffer from illness, which marks the skin, which then potentially lowers the grade of the hide. Unlike most domesticated animals, crocodiles and alligators are carnivores. As you know, meat is expensive and most alligators are grown between two and four years. So, you can see how that adds up.
In general, the longer an alligator or crocodile lives, the bigger it gets and the bigger the resulting skin is. But, there’s also a risk involved because the older they get, the more likely they are to damage the skin. Just imagine if you have an animal that you grow for its leather for 4 years, and then it’s scarred, and you can’t use it. That is extremely wasteful. So, as the breeder with a financial incentive, they have to balance risk and reward.
That doesn’t always lead to animal welfare treatment. The regulations regarding the conditions of how they can be bred vary between countries and can vary greatly. Some brands like Chanel, for example, have stopped using crocodilian leathers because they believe they cannot source it ethically. So, generally, alligator is more expensive than crocodile.
How To Distinguish Alligator and Crocodile Skins
To tell them apart, you have to look at the belly because the belly is the most desirable part of leather production for both crocodile and alligator. Alligators generally have smaller scales than crocodiles. They’re generally also smoother and result in a smoother and softer final leather.
An easier way to distinguish an alligator and a crocodile is to look at the scales. The alligator has a rapid transition in size from the belly to the flank. The belly is bigger and the flank gets rapidly smaller. With crocodile skin, the size decreases more gradually towards the flanks.
Alligators are also the only crocodilians who have a unique umbilical cord scar that you won’t find on a crocodile skin. In fact, many manufacturers like to use this umbilical scar to show that it’s a genuine alligator and not crocodile or something else.
Sometimes, farmed alligators have a much larger and elongated umbilical scar. Also, some of the crocodile scales have the ISO pore. It stands for “integumentary sensory pore.” It’s referred to as “hair pore” sometimes, but, of course, crocodiles don’t have hair. It’s actually a tiny sensing organ that’s supposed to detect minute changes in its environment.
Alligators have ISO pores, too but just on their head. So, if you see it in other parts of the skin, you know it’s a crocodile.
I’d say, at the end of the day, for leather goods, alligator leather is more desirable than crocodile leather. Why? It is softer, it’s more supple, and it’s just a nicer-looking leather overall. Alligator is generally more expensive than crocodile. That being said, crocodiles grow larger, so you have very large items you may not get around using crocodile.
Processing Crocodile & Alligator Hides
Yes, you guessed it, the animal has to be skinned to get hide. But, there are two ways. On the one hand, you can have the belly skin or you can have the hornback skin. For leather goods, most people want the belly skin. The hornback skin is much more three-dimensional and I’ve seen it sometimes used for cowboy boots. But, overall, it is probably more visually interesting and dimensional, but most people prefer the belly, smooth, flat side.
Farmed animals generally get fatter and so they have a wider belly skin. While wild alligators typically get longer and have slimmer belly skin. The skinning has to be done properly. Otherwise, if you damage parts of the skin, it can result in holes later on, which can make the skin less desirable and yield a much lower price.
After the animals have been skinned, hides are preserved in salt or in brine in order to stop them from decomposing.
There are only a few quality tanners left in the world that specialize in alligator and crocodile leathers. And so, sometimes, between transit times, the volume that is needed to tan the same color consistently, it can take a while to get there. So, proper curing is essential. Otherwise, the skin will decompose and not be a final good product.
The skins are divided into the primary area, which is sometimes called the “pattern area,” which is mostly used for leather goods, and then the secondary area, which includes the snout feet and the end of tail, which are often used for smaller leather goods, such as business card holders, wallets, key rings, and so forth. Everything else is made from items in the primary area. The price of a tanned skin can vary greatly and it mostly depends on the grade and the size.
So, how exactly does grading work? Typically, the final grading happens after tanning because, during the tanning process, holes can emerge, that maybe not have been visible previously because of the chemical rotation forces from the drum in which they’re tanned.
Typically, there’s a grade scale from one to five with one being the highest. I mean, some tanners will even refuse a grade five because they consider it too low of quality. But, frankly, if an animal had to die for that skin, I think it should be used.
The grade is primarily determined by whether there is damage and how much damage. N ow, there are elements of subjectivity, especially with wilder skins, but for farmed bellies, there is a very rigorous, strict standard. Basically, the belly is divided into four quadrants.
If there is no damage in any of the quadrants, it’s considered a Grade-1 skin; if there is a defect in one quadrant, it’s considered a Grade-2; if it’s in two quadrants, a Grade-3; and so forth.
What exactly is a defect? Well, that varies. It can be anything from a hardly noticeable, healed scar to a big, gaping hole. Also, you can sometimes find parasite damage, which looks like round holes, which are caused by leeches. That’s typically something you only see in wild animals.
You can also have this wide umbilical cord scar, which can be long and much wider than on the smaller ones. It’s really rare in wild alligators, but much more common in farmed ones. Some claim it has to do with the handling of the eggs. Others suspect it has to do something with a hatching. We don’t quite know.
The other big impact on the price of an alligator skin is its size. The bigger it is, the more expensive it is. Most leather in the US or around the world is sold by surface area, in either square feet or square meters.
Alligator bellies, on the other hand, are sold by centimeters of width. Basically, you take a ruler from left to right of the widest area, excluding the outermost half bone. Measurements are always rounded down. So, let’s say, you measure 47.8, which means it’s a 47-centimeter skin.
As you can see, the size is really determined by the belly, so farmed animals are typically fatter so they have a square belly skin that is perfectly usable. A wild alligator will have a more rectangular shape. Interestingly, the exact length of the skin doesn’t impact the price because the belly is the most desirable part. Typically, a skin is six and a half times as long as it is wide.
So, knowing that, let’s say, you want an alligator or crocodile suitcase, you know you have to buy a big skin.
Since most skins for alligators come from the US, you will have the lowest prices here generally. Why? Because of CITES. It’s a multilateral treaty meant to protect endangered animals and plants. Because of that, you can’t just ship an alligator skin from the US to Europe. You have to undergo lots of paperwork and, if you don’t do it, it’s a felony crime and the fines are very steep.
Even if you do all the proper stuff and get the paperwork, just sending two skins to Europe, for example, to a tanner would cost you several thousand dollars. So, if alligator skin is tanned outside the US, it’s generally more expensive than within the US. Because of CITES, you could argue that alligator leather is one of the most traceable leathers in the world today.
So, what’s the pricing per centimeter of width? Well, of course, it depends on the tannery. Generally, though, the ratios between the different grades are similar.
Let’s say Grade-1 costs €18 or $18, then Grade-2 typically costs about €15 or $15 per centimeter. Grade-3, $10 to $11; Grade-4, $7; and Grade-5, often $4 or less.
You can see, between the grades, there’s quite a big difference. Keep in mind that’s just the price of the raw skin. If you now want to ship that skin to a leather goods manufacturer somewhere, you have to deal with all the CITES and all that stuff and the price goes up.
Another reason alligator leather products are so expensive is because tanning is also expensive. Why is that? Well, it’s quite time intensive.
Interestingly, the finish of the skin doesn’t really have a big impact on its price. Back in the day, the most traditional finish is a glossy finish, which I always thought was done in a way with layers of lacquer. But, in fact, it’s like a heated, round stone and it’s a mechanical process that’s quite interesting and relatively quick.
And then, of course, you can polish it afterwards. But, overall, it is much more mechanical and less chemical than I thought it would be. This shiny finish is also known as “glazed.” Then you can find half-glazed or matte crocodile leather or even a nubuck style.
Process of Tanning
First, hides are descaled and softened, then it’s submerged into a processing solution, which just softens everything up. It also helps to descale and this process can take up to two weeks.
Then, the leather is either chrome or veg-tanned. Like most animal hides, crocodile and alligator are typically chrome-tanned. As we discussed in our post on Chrome Tanning vs. Veg Tanning, there are reasons why you would prefer chrome tanning in situations, and no, chrome tanning is not always inferior.
Chrome Tanned vs. Vegetable Tanned Leather, Explained
Chrome tanning is the best option for alligator and crocodile skins for most applications because it’s great for thin, flexible leather and its colorfast. Chrome-tanned hides are often left for weeks in this wet, blue state to make sure the hides properly took the tannage so, later on in the coloring process, the color is very uniform.
Through the shaping process, a machine is used to bring these skins to a uniform thickness. The hydrogen bleach is to remove minor blemishes and create a uniform color. Sometimes you see these white alligator skins and they’re called “crust leather.”
Typically, crust leather is less expensive because it doesn’t have color yet and you either have to color it or you can hand patina it, like it is popular now on some shoes for example. Then, a special mixture of colorants and oils are used to get the color into the leather.
Of course, there are also finishing processes with colors, so you have two tones or different shades; sometimes the area between the scales are even hand-painted. The sky’s the limit here when it comes to creativity.
Once the skin is dyed, it’s left to dry for several days before the final finishing is applied. Again, the glazing process, which yields that super shiny finish, is very mechanical. Often they’re also hand waxed and polished because it is an expensive leather and people want to make sure it is perfect.
Making Crocodile & Alligator Skin Products
Alligator and crocodile products are even more expensive because it typically takes more time to make leather goods out of this material than with, let’s say, a cowhide.
Also, there are other issues to consider when you make an alligator or crocodile product, such as a boot or shoe, or a briefcase. A larger product like a suitcase may use multiple skins to actually create one perfectly-looking item. All these different skins have the same color and, if they have multiple sides, you probably want the scales to be the same size, so you have to select and pair the right skins to create just one product.
What type of skin and what grade you need depends greatly on the use case. For example, a pair of shoes could be cut from one 45-centimeter wide skin or you could choose two smaller skins at about 33-centimeters wide. Again, buying two skins that look very much similar is more expensive. But, it also allows you to get a very similar or identical look on the left shoe and the right shoe.
If you want a belt, though, you probably need a 40 or 45-centimeter skin if you want a one-piece belt. Otherwise, less expensive belts are usually cut into multiple pieces. It’s not always obvious at first. But, on closer inspection, you can see it’s not just one piece. That, of course, makes the belt less expensive. So, watch out when you buy if it’s a one-piece belt or multiple pieces pieced together.
Because leather is so expensive, there’s also a lot more hand detailing and handling to make sure that nothing gets damaged and there are no mistakes in the production. In most leather factories, you can use machines to cut the leather. Well, with alligator and crocodile it’s all done by hand to painstakingly avoid faulty areas and to maximize the yield.
Overall, it can take days to make just a single alligator product. And think about it, you can do all this work and, if the maker makes just one mistake, they have to start all over and they have to cover that with a price.
Why are alligator products so expensive, then?
So, in a nutshell, alligator and crocodile products are so expensive because there are factors to consider.
- It’s expensive to grow the animal.
- Then there’s a limited number of animals and it takes a long time to grow them.
- There are not many tanneries that do this kind of work, so they can command a higher price.
- It’s also resource-intensive and takes a long time. So, people have to consider that for their cash flow needs.
- Even during the manufacturing process, it needs special care, handling, and attention.
All of that together yields a very high price. And, of course, luxury brands know that and so they sometimes charge even more for their products. Even if you go to your local craftsman and you have an alligator or a crocodile skink product made, there will be a significant markup compared to other leathers.
Today, I’m wearing an outfit with a tweed jacket that is vintage. It’s a nice tweed and brown with patch pockets. With it, I have a pair of chinos from Bills Khakis, and a blue checked shirt from Spier & Mackay. My soft accessories are a silk knit tie, and a pocket square made of wool and silk from Fort Belvedere with little bunnies because I didn’t have crocodiles.
My boots are hand patinaed, kind of a hiker style from Idrese, and I quite like their style. I’m also wearing my crocodile belt, even though the color doesn’t match my boots exactly. I’m planning on having a pair of alligator shoes made at a local shoemaker, but she’s currently booked out for over a year. So, that’s also something to consider.
Would you invest in expensive crocodile and leather goods? Let us know in the comments!