Grades of Leather and Why it Matters

We always talk about “full”, “top” and “genuine” leather and how it affects the quality rating of the wallets we review. Read on to quickly understand the difference.

Much has been talked about in our videos regarding leather. As you know, I like me a good leather and take every opportunity to smell it. But what many don’t know is there are levels of quality to leather. Not all leather is finished the same. It all may start the same way, but how it ends is very different, and the quality of your final wallet can be significant.


But first, let’s talk about the industry of leather, before we talk about the different kinds and the final products like wallets. Leather tanning has been around for millennia. It’s one of the oldest known industries in human civilization. Before industrialization, tanning was used extensively by all civilizations around the world as it was critical for many articles beyond clothing such as footwear and even armor. Within the United States, tanning was active during colonial times and grew as the population did. At its height in 1840 there were over 8,000 tanneries providing leather to over 11,000 shoemakers, who were the main consumers.

Today, over 90% of the hides and skins produced in the United States are exported and is one of the country’s top raw material, worth almost $3 billion dollars annually.


Setting aside history let’s now get into the details of leather. The “best” kind of leather isn’t all about whether it’s “full”, “top”, or “genuine”, it also depends on several factors including:

  • The type of animal and breed

  • The location and climate where the animal lived

  • The location on the hide the leather was taken

  • The layer (top, full, genuine)

  • Skill of the tannery doing the processing

The dimensions mentioned above can make the process of finding leather exhaustive and not something necessary for a wallet. So, we’ll focus on the layer types as that’s most common, so let’s look at how the layers of leather stack up against what we see from the animal.

Layers of Leather


Full grain leather comes from the top layer of the hide. It includes all the grain with it – hence the name full grain leather. This type of leather retains the inherent toughness, as well as the imperfections because there are no surface alterations or splitting.

It is the highest quality leather and and thus, it is also the most expensive. Working with this leather material is challenging. It absorbs body oils and develops a patina over time – a characteristic that attributes to its popularity. Full grain leather can be split, but in so doing loses the cross-fibers that provide strength.


Top grain is the second highest grade of leather. Usually, to obtain top grain leather, the top layer of skin from blemished hides is split. The surface is sanded to get rid of inherent imperfections. Pigmentation or staining gives the leather an attractive look.

This also makes top grain leather smoother and more flexible than the full grain. Although this type of leather is strong and durable, it tends to stretch permanently over time. It is used to produce suede and nubuck. Most high-end products, such as handbags and jackets, are comprised of top grain leather.


Known commonly as “genuine leather” it’s really a corrected grain or split leather. While all grains of leather can considered “genuine” when stamped or referenced in product it usually always means the lowest quality rung. It comes from the skin layers that remain after the top grain is split off. Genuine leather tends to be tougher in texture and isn’t used in applications where the leather is expected to be soft and supple. It’s also heavily modified to sand out imperfections and often embossed with a pattern to make it look more natural of like another animal like snake. All of these modifications do affect the longevity of the leather as it tends to affect its breathability.

Hopefully, this has given you a quick understanding of what to look for when comparing the types of leather in your wallets.

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