Crocodilian leather is perhaps the most popular natural material for vintage purses and handbags. The earliest Crocodilian fossils can be traced back to 80 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Today the order encompasses 23 species, including crocodiles, alligators, gavials, and caiman.
The first handbags appearing in the early 20th century and resembling small suitcases for women were created by leather goods companies such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada. At the time, these firms made utilitarian objects such as harnesses, saddles, and luggage. Hermès, in particular, was known for its use of exquisite leathers such as alligator, ostrich, and crocodile for its nose and saddle bags. When it transitioned to this new market for women, the luxury brand handbag was born.
Early Victorian and Edwardian leather handbags and purses made of alligator and crocodile emphasize the natural texture and color of the skins, often featuring head and back horns and a range of browns and tans and/or olive green. Some of these antique purses even come with taxidermied paws sewn into the bag...
In the 1950s, women became obsessed with carrying a "good" handbag, which was defined as a sophisticated, well-designed leather handbag made of black calf, crocodile, or alligator. An affordable alligator handbag, with a "griffe" or designer label, could give elegance and class to a woman who didn't have the money for a couture jacket or evening gown. These skins were often dyed and finished, and your fashionable 1950s woman had a rainbow of colors to chose from, from basic blacks and off-whites to fuchsia, turquoise, and jade. Finishes included bombe, classic, and matte.
Hermès dominated the field with its Kelly bag. Crafted out of two alligators, the belly skin was used for the body of the bag, the neck skin for sides. This celebrated purse was favored by movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly. Another Hermès handbag, the Birkin, was originally made out of brown crocodile skin and has become a status symbol.
There are only two known alligator species: American alligator, currently thriving in the Southeastern United States, and Chinese alligator, which is critically endangered. American alligators, once threatened by poachers, came back from the brink of extinction in 1987, thanks to wetlands conservation efforts fueled by the handbag industry. Hence, all alligator products should be made of American alligator.
On the other hand, there are dozens of known species of crocodile. In general, skins made from American alligators are considered more desirable, as the scale pattern is more symmetrical and the skin is smoother, thicker, and softer. But there is one exception to this rule: Leathers made out of Crocodylus porosus, or saltwater crocodile native to Southeast Asia and Australia, are the most coveted of all.
The most expensive purse in the world, a red Hermès Birking bag with white gold and diamond hardware that sold for more than $200,000, is made out of Porosus crocodile. Unlike all the freshwater crocodiles, this "saltie" doesn't have any bony protrusions, or osteoderms, on its belly scales—osteoderms are limited to its back and neck. The saltwater croc's scales are more oval on its sides, and small, even rectangular, on its belly.
Freshwater crocodile leather is more common, but many species are endangered and so their use is restricted. Generally speaking, freshwater crocodile is of slightly lower quality than saltwater, and their osteoderms can make tanning difficult. Brown caiman from Central and South America is another reptile species, a low-quality leather that often gets billed as alligator or crocodile skin. Caiman makes for a drier, stiffer, thinner, and generally less durable bag, and the scales often have strange lines or spots through them. Buyers should beware of dealers trying to get alligator or crocodile prices for caiman handbags.
If a crocodilian leather bag has an umbilical scar, you know it is alligator. As a testament to the authenticity of their product, some designers will place this biological phenomenon, an elongated and webbed star shape, in a prominent position on their bags. Purses incorporating head bumps also give away the species: Alligators have three rows of two head bumps; crocodiles have two rows, one with four head bumps, the other with two; caiman have three rows, two with four head bumps, one with two.
Crocodiles leather can be distinguished by small pores or dimples found toward the edge of each scale. These are for sensory hairs that crocodile use to feel their environment. After the leather is tanned, you can still see the small hole where the hair, called integumentary sensory organ, once was. Alligator scales have even sizes, while caiman scale patterns are more asymmetrical.
Fake, or non-leather, imitations are getting trickier to identify, as many of them are made with molds from real crocodile or alligator skins. Usually, the space between the scales is not very deep, and the pattern is often inorganically repetitive.
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