Like a fine wines, cheeses, and John Waters movies, quality leather is something best appreciated years after its release . A well-made piece will break in, while a poorly made one will break down. The difference is largely the cut and treatment of the material. Lower-quality brands use mid-slices of a hide, then “correct” the surface with glossy chemical solutions to give it the impression of a healthy animal skin. The chemicals used in this process will quickly break down, exposing the leather for the compromise that it is. Full-grain leather, on the other hand, uses the hide’s natural exterior. Not only will it last longer than a split leather, but its appeal will ripen in the process.
Even between full-grain cuts, however, there can be differences in quality. Leather taken from the stomach or neck areas, for example, will be more wrinkly, and may not age as gracefully as something taken near the spine. Luckily, a skilled shoemaker will know what pieces to put where. A skilled shoemaker knows what piece to put where. The best cuts of the leather can be used for areas that get the most wear (e.g. at the flexpoint on a pair of shoes), while cheaper cuts can be safely used for areas that don’t bend (e.g. at the heel). To complicate things further, some products, such as workboots, might be made to wrinkle heavily and quickly (for style purposes), while products such as leather jackets might come glazed, but for the purpose of giving the garment more protection from the elements, rather than to hide imperfections.
Take a good look and feel around any leather product you are considering. Good leather should be tightly-grained and supple, not plasticky or dry. Look for scars, such as those from flea bites or when the animal was cut when it rubbed up against a fence. For high-end manufacturers, these areas are usually discarded during the cutting process, as they can be unattractive and prone to tearing. Be watchful of fat wrinkles, where “puddles” of smooth skin appear in the middle of a very grained area. The best makers will either avoid these areas entirely, or use them for areas that aren’t very visible.
It gets easier to tell the difference the more leather goods you handle, both on the high and low end. But this introduction gives you an idea of what defects to look for, and what qualities to admire.