I love leather. The smell, the lustre, the suppleness of it, the irregular way it absorbs dye. Most of all, the way it feels to the touch.
As someone dedicated to the crafting of leather bags, the decision of why leather X over leather Y is one I make as often as a painter mixes pigments. Generally, those decisions have been guided by the above: leather feel, suppleness, smell, and look.
Which brings us to types of leather commonly used for bag making.
- Vegetable-tanned leather, tanned/dyed using plant-based dyes, can be expected to darken over time where it is touched the most, and generally just show use in an organic ‘aging’ manner that many of us associate with heirloom leather pieces. It is also usually the most expensive, because vegetable tanning is so time-intensive. The straps of some bags (Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull, etc) are made using vegetable-tanned leather.
- Chrome-tanned leather is tanned using chromium sulphate and some other chrome-based salts. It doesn’t discolor to the touch as easily as vegetable-tanned leather. Chrome tanning can be done relatively faster and in larger batches.
- Saffiano leather. Then there is Saffiano. It is leather that is not dyed, but coated over (in purple, blue, tan, or whatever color your bag comes in), with an opaque resin layer with a cross-hatch textured finish. So, even if the underlying leather is a pale cream color, you don’t see it unless the coating scratches off over time, which it tends to do on the corners that brush against hard surfaces. While Saffiano may have a synthetic-looking finish, it has the advantage of making the bag durable against elements like water, skin contact, and the sun (vegetable-tanned leather darkens gradually with exposure to these; chrome-tanned leather, much less so).
Saffiano doesn’t care about what tanning process is used, because you don’t get to see the leather — you only see the opaque cross-hatch coating applied over it.
Exclusively used by Prada for years, it has recently been used by other bag makers: Michael Kors, DKNY, Tory Burch, and Coach. Longchamp is another bag maker increasingly using Saffiano for the leather bags in their line.
Saffiano leather preserves its look for a long time, due to its coated surface. Still, it doesn’t give much of the joy of owning something that is leather — yes, along with the care that goes into making it last.
The most similar thing to Saffiano leather in terms of its finish is patent leather. I made a bag using patent leather in Minku‘s early days. I couldn’t justify using it for a leather brand if 4 out of 5 people were going to ask me if it was real leather or plastic/vinyl (patent leather is coated in a glossy lacquer). Whether for Saffiano or patent leather, the coating has the side-effect of masking leather’s identifying properties like its soft smell and natural surface texture.
Many ladies have a combination of leather bags in their collection: from Saffiano to lusher feel-me-smell-me leathers. Unless the bag style is an incredibly unique must-have, I would not advise spending a lot on a Saffiano bag because unlike other leather finishes, you must imagine that the leather is there without seeing it, interacting with it, or smelling it.