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At Mission Mercantile, our mission is to create and deliver remarkable handcrafted leather goods with our Mythical Customer CareTM and a Lifetime Handshake PromiseTM. It's our passion and a way of life, embedded in the personal and family histories of each and every person who contributes to our products. We walk proudly in the footsteps of craftspeople through the years whose creations were emblematic of the pioneering spirit of our nation. We work in leather because it is a versatile, beautiful and durable natural material, and we use only the highest grade of materials. Sadly, the same cannot be said of every producer of leather goods, so we wanted to share with you the keys to identifying top-quality goods.
Most raw leather bears a stamp on its underside to identify its grade in one of four categories: full-grain, top-grain, split-grain and genuine. You may be surprised to hear that "genuine" is not a mark of quality because it's a catch-all term to cover anything that can be called leather but is not of the best quality. Genuine leather is made by splitting a piece of full-grain leather, sanding away any imperfections in the hide and perhaps even stamping a fake grain on it. The highest – and strongest - grade is full-grain, and means the raw material is exceptional, so it's worth inspecting the product further.
The best rawhide leather tends to be U.S. steerhides (which is why we select it exclusively). We source our finished leather from Gold rated tanneries certified by the Leather Working Group (LWG), an international organization that works to ensure sustainable environmental practices in the leather industry. Avoid products from countries where the industry is unregulated and there are no environmental protection regulations. Of course, the person you ask may not know, but it's certainly worth asking.
This won't work in online retailing, of course, but in person, you can't mistake the smell of real high quality leather. The lower grades will have a milder aroma, while the best grades have a rich, sweet smell. And yes, often vegetable-tanned leather has a sweeter smell than chrome-tanned. Many (most?) folks don’t realize that the unmistakable leather aroma we all know and love isn’t “natural” to a leather hide, but rather comes from a combination of perfumes, chemicals, oils, and waxes leather tanneries use to give leather its unique smell. The fake stuff will smell of plastic or chemicals … or nothing at all. Freshly handcrafted leather goods may have a mild odor from glue used in the process of handcrafting, but this will typically dissipate soon after the product is finished.
Examine the grain closely. If you come across tiny imperfections, don't mistake these for a lack of quality because they may be the result of veins, stretch marks, small insect bites, etc – i.e. “life” - indicating the authenticity of the full-grain leather hide. In fact, some leather aficionados prefer and seek out leather scars as a sign of an authentic full-grain hide. Quality leather feels warm and soft and will have a very full grain - if it is too regular or smooth to the touch, chances are it is imitation or, at best, a lower grade of split-grain leather.
The best-quality full-grain leather develops a patina over time, which is a dark, soft sheen resulting from oxidization, burnishing via being rubbed or touched by hand, and natural aging. Imitations and even the lowest grades of leather may either fade or retain an unnaturally consistent color.
Whatever the product, you can tell a lot from its stitching. If a leather good fails, it will typically be because of its stitching. The best-quality and most durable goods are only as good as its stitching, and high quality thread rules. At first sight, both machine and hand stitching may look similar because they will run in very straight lines, but the machine method requires the use of two separate threads that lock around each other, while the hand method uses a single thread. Our advice is to avoid poorly stitched goods (a wandering thread line, messy bottom threads, use of a cotton thread, etc) that don’t use the very best nylon or polyester threads available. At Mission Mercantile, we use only the very best German-spun marine-grade polyester thread available as it has been proven to be the most durable, weather and UV resistant thread in existence.
All the edges of a leather product should be smooth and finished. Handcrafting may achieve this through edge burnishing (using a wooden, horsehair, etc wheel or tool), edge dying or perhaps even painting. You should also examine the edge color; if there is any blue to the edging (from a chrome-tanned “wet blue” hide), it suggests the leather was not properly finished and dyed throughout at the tannery (vegetable-tanned leather will not exhibit a “wet blue” edge). Sometimes edge paint is used to conceal these imperfections, so look out for signs of this. Running your thumbnail along the edges is the best way to check the smoothness and durability of the finish.
Not every retailer may be happy to let you try this, but applying a tiny drop of water to the surface will help to verify the quality. As a natural material, the pores in leather will absorb liquids; if it is imitation or poor quality, it is much more likely they will simply run off.
High quality, full-grain leather is the strongest grade available and is susceptible to scratching. It may be sometimes protected with a surface coating to resist stains, minor scratches and other damage; most of our leathers do not have a coating. Rather, you may remove / blend / minimize most scratches by rubbing the scratch with your finger (the combination of your body’s oil and heat will do the trick) or even add a tiny bit of conditioner to help blend the scratch. To be safe, test first in an inconspicuous section to see if the leather conditioner darkens too much to your liking.
Remember those grades and that misleading one: "genuine". A manufacturer is entitled to call a product genuine leather as long as it's made from some kind of leather, however poor it may be. They can also describe something as being "made with full-grain leather", which can be true if full-grain makes only the smallest part of the product. Another cheat is to use full-grain leather, which, in order to save money, has not been put through the proper finishing process. Those blue edges are a telltale sign of this shortcut and always delivers a substandard product.
Don’t forget to look for the Country of Origin (CoO) label. Typically known as the “Made in” label, it should be pretty easily found either stitched or stamped on or inside the product. If you can’t find it to save your life (or it was on a small slip of paper that can be thrown away post-purchase or “lost”), then the brand most likely doesn’t want you to know or – even worse – ashamed of it. We handcraft 100% of our leather goods in our own shop located in old Leon, Mexico (founded in 1576) the world-renowned leather capital of the world.
It may be a minefield, but if you follow these tips, you'll never run the risk of ending up with inferior leather goods. Make it easy on yourself. Always purchase from a brand with a lifetime promise, that always stands behind it without question with their Mythical Customer CareTM.