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 Another Hermès handbag, the Birkin, was originally made out of brown crocodile skin and has become a status symbol.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

Courage. B Black Croc Embossed Patent Leather Tab Front Tote BagAuthentic Suarez Burgundy Alligator Skin Small Flap Top Handle Handbag Purse BagAuthentic Suarez Deep Burgundy Genuine Alligator Skin Handbag Shoulder Bag PurseClare Vivier Petite Duffle $524 Crocodile Embossed Satchel Great Color For FallAuthentic Suarez Brown Genuine Alligator Skin Handbag Shoulder Bag Purse ToteCoach Madison Carrie Handbag In Croc Embossed Leather Rust Red - Rare!Authentic Givenchy Large Antigona Black Croc Embossed BagBrown Brahmin Handbag With Brown Croc TrimVintage Versace Gold Tone Medusa Brown Embossed Crocodile Leather HandbagVintage Celine Brown Macadam Embossed Crocodile Leather Clutch Shouder Bag Brahmin Red Croc Purse AuthenticVintage Black Crocodile Siso Handbag Made In ItalyVintage Genuine Alligator Skin Handbag Purse Pocketbook 1950's 1 Of 2 YqzAuthentic Gucci Black Genuine Crocodile Tom Ford Design Bag Handbag Purse Ghw Vintage Brahmin Extra Large Black And Brown Croc Leather Purse ToteChanel Brown Crocodile Porosus HandbagKate Spade Green Madrid Croc Embossed Patent Leather Knightsbridge Shoulder BagCeline Phantom Croc Embossed BlackBrahmin Mini Arno Fizz Gloss Croc Leather Bag EucOsprey Brown Real Leather Hand Bag Genuine Tote Designer Mock Croc Shoulder Brahmin Annabelle Croc Shoulder Handbag ~excellent~Loris Depacifico Kelly Birkin Style Crocodile Embossed Leather Satchel HandbagBrahmin Pecan Brown Croc Emobssed Leather Shoulder Bag Hobo HandbagPretty Vintage Sacha Black Genuine Alligator Bag Jade Rhinestone Clasp,lqqk!!Brahmin Dark Brown Alligator Embossed Shoulder Bag Tote Purse Zip Top ClosureBrahmin Brown Croc Trim Black Leather Satchel BagBrahman Carmela Moonlight Melbourne Cream Leather Croc Hobo Purse $245 Hgm735Brahmin Anytime Mini Bag- White CrocMarlowe Pink Croc Embossed Leather Structured Shopper BagVintage Donna Karan 1980s $5k Alligator & Gold Vermeil Runway Bag PurseBrahmin Adele Stout Melbourne Croc Embossed Leather With Matching WalletAuthentic Brahmin Black Leather Croc Print Crossbody Shoulder BagVintage Horn Backed Crocodile Leather Handbag By German Make Hummel Dates 60'sHermes Shiny Cherry Red Braise Alligator Pochette Clutch Handbag - #10050Authentic Givenchy Blk Pandora Medium. Metallic Croc Emobossed Handle And Strap.Michael Kors Crocodile Embossed Brown Leather Hamilton Tote Handbag Purse $ 398Brahmin Pink Embossed Croc Leather Shoulder Bag Handbag PurseBrahmin Tuscan Brown Croc Black Leather HandbagVintage Genuine Alligator Handbag Purse Pocketbook Shabby Chic 1950's 2 Of 2 YqzStefano Bravo Black Patent Leather Crocodile Embossed Tote HandbagLarge Vintage Antique Black Patent Leather Rockabilly Hand Deco Bag AlligatorClassic Vintage Brighton Moc Croc Shopper Tote Shoulder Handbag PurseTerrida Tangaroa Italian Black Alligator Leather Laptop Briefcase Bag Purse Monika Chiang Grey Croc Embossed Leather 'envelope' ClutchBrahmin Brown Croc Leather Shoulder Handbag Purse BagGivenchy 'melancholia' Shoulder Bag With Embossed Crocodile Vintage Teal Croc Embossed Handbag PurseBrighton Black Leather Croc Shoulder Bag Handbag With Beautiful Applique EucKate Spade Orchard Valley Doris Alligator Green Leather SatchelDooney And Bourke Crocodile Embossed Leather Large Pink Tassel Tote BagOsprey Polished Croc Honey Brown Leather Shoulder Bag & Key Lock/fob -super CondAuthenticvintage Gold Line Genuine Alligator/crocodile Brown Purse ShoulderstrapVintage Brighton Black Pebbled Leather & Croc Satchel Shoulder Bag Purse WalletCoach Madison Embossed Exotic Croc Crocodile Accordion Zip-around Clutch WalletTrue Vintage 7 Handbags Crocodile Meyers Garay Walborg Soure Celebrity Purse LotDooney&bourke Lg Blk Lthr/croc Bag Height 12 Length 12 Depth 5. With Cerficate Lauren Merkin Eve Gold Baby Croc Metallic Leather Clutch HandbagCrocodile Brahmin Handbag With Gold HardwareClassic Brighton Camel/tan Pebbled Leather Croc Purse/shoulderbag EucBrighton Black Pebbled Croc Leather Small Tote Shoulder Bag