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 Another Hermès handbag, the Birkin, was originally made out of brown crocodile skin and has become a status symbol.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 sym...

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University is the place to learn about handbag makers from Adrian's, which made Bakelite bags, to Whiting … [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Authentic Celine Phantom Croc Embossed Black Leather Handbag Tote Brahmin Brown Alligator Textured Handbag 10" X 8" X 4" Medium Very Nice Style!Brahmin Large Melbourne Croc Embossed Soft Leather In Peacock Hand Tote Bag$5000 Tiffany & Co. Exotic Crocodile Tote Handbag Purse (sim. To Hermes/chanel)Fermoda Black Shiny Crocodile Purse Or Handbag With Detachable Chain StrapBrahmin Toasted Almond Collection Brown Leather Alligator Bag. Beautiful Brahmin Embossed Croc Leather Taupe/brown Big Shopper Tote Bag Purse$1400 Genuine Celine Signature Shoulder Purse Brown Alligator/crocodiletote Bag Fabulous Genuine Real Crocodile Skin Handbag Bag Pig Skin Interior Wow!!Mauro Governa Brown Alligator Skin Shoulder BagMichael Kors Hamilton Large Tote Gray Croc / Silver $398 Free Shipping Stunning Black Genuine Alligator "birkin" Handbag W/ Lock, Key, & Sleeper BagBrahmin Crocodile Leather Shoulder Purse Brahmin Champagne Metallic Mock Croc Wallet Vintage 1950s Black Lederer France Crocodile Doctors Bag Medium Satchel. $2,500 Tiffany & Co. Exotic Crocodile Clutch Handbag Purse Hermes Chanel QualityDooney & Bourke-genuine Croc-emboss Leather Hobo Handbag-cognac BrownVintage Handcrafted Full Body Hornback Caiman Crocodile Alligator Leather Bag !#Croc Embossed Leather Belted Classic Satchel Lg Oversized Weekend Tote Purse ^zAuthentic Coach Orange Croc Leather Lindsey Tote #23042 EucClassic Brahmin Croc Black & Brown Shoulder Purse Tote Bag VintageBrahmin Croc Embossed Brown Leather Satchel Handbag With Matching BillfoldFabulous Genuine Rich Brown Crocodile Skin Handbag Bag Mint!! Suede Interior WowVintage Alligator Bakelite? HandbagBrahmin Crocodile Handbag- Good Used ConditionCeline Trapeze Croc Embossed Black Leather / Suede Michael Micheal Kors Copper Crocodile Print Embossed Leather Hobo Shoulder BagB Makowsky Brown Moc Croc Ruched Huge Leather Satchel Hobo HandbagBrighton Lot Of 2 Black Leather Brown Moc Croc Satchel & Tote Handbags Fossil Croc Vintage Revival Tote Shoulder Bag Purse Ret.298.00 W/d BagBrahmin Alligator Croco Purse Satchel W/shoulder Strap Tom Ford For Gucci Near Mint Crocodile Bullet Bag Baguette Pouchette Amazing!!!Coach Avery Embossed Croc Leather Large Satchel/shoulder Bag 100% AuthenticAuthentic Large Coach Kristin Pink Leather Spectator Croc Python Hobo HandbagBella Mondini Croc Embossed Red Italian Leather Satchel Shoulder Tote Purse +Authentic Coach Madison Black Croc Embossed Leather Shoulder BagVtg Genuine Black Alligator Handbag Kelly Style 2 Handle Vintage Brahmin Womens Black Leather Handbag With Alligator TrimEileen Kramer 1990's Navy Blue Hornback Crocodile Crossbody BagVintage 1920/30 Crocodile Skin Handbag & Purse- The Bag Measures 9"x8" Nib Asprey Matte Crocodile Steamer Darcy Palm Beach One-of-a-kind Ochre HandbagBrahmin Champagne Metallic Mock Croc Shoulder Bag Rare Oversized 1940s Retro Cognac, Horn-back Alligator Envelope Clutch Purse ~nrFossil Croc Memoir Satchel Tote And A Matching Memoir Crossbody, Summit Brn, NwdWine Crocodile Polyester Handbag Shoulder Bag Briefcase SatchelBrahmin Champagne Metallic Mock Croc Wristlet Brahmin Black / Brown Croc Leather Satchel Shoulder Bag Pre-owned Auth Coach 46629 Madison Grey Croc Embossed Crossbody Bag W/ Dust BagLauren Ralph Lauren Womens Satchel Lanesborough Croc Embossed PurseVintage 50's Genuine Crocdile Alligator Never Used Luxury Handbag CognacPrada Ostrich/alligator~bag~excellent Inside & Out~beautiful Browns~ Rare!Dooney & Bourke Crocodile Embossed Brown BagBrighton Jamie Cream Beige Croc Woven Strap Satchel Purse & WalletFalor Leborse Red Large Croc Embossed Leather Shopper Handbag 14 X 10 X 4 X 7 Michael Kors Gold Faux Croc Chain Crossbody Slouchy Large Tote BagAuthentic Brahmin Bag Purse Embossed Croc Brown Leather Very NiceVtg 40's Cuba Genuine Crocodile Alligator Baby Head Body Leather Purse Brahmin Dusty Blue Leather Purse Croc Barrel Purse /hadbag/shoulder PurseBrahmin Black And Brown Croc Flap WalletCoach Kristin Bone Spectator Croc Embossed Leather Hobo Handbag 18287