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From boots to bags and wallets to watch bands, leather is a premium material. In many ways it’s synonymous with luxury. Could you imagine if Prada knitted purses out of yarn or if Rolls-Royce covered its seats with burlap? These ultra-premium products owe much of their appeal to the humble cow.

Once reserved for high-end vehicles, leather has become dramatically more accessible over the years. Today you can get it in some of the most affordable cars on the road. And with this broad price spectrum it’s understandable why it comes in different grades; you wouldn’t expect the same quality of leather in a Ford Fiesta as you’d get in a BMW 7 Series.

Looking for a competitive advantage automakers love to throw fancy-sounding terms out there to differentiate their leather-lined interiors. Names like Nappa, aniline, semi-aniline and vegetable tanned sound good and look even better in brochures, but are these terms just marketing nonsense or do they actually mean something?

Making the Grade

Shedding some light on this subject, Nicola Ashley, design director at GST-Seton AutoLeather, the world’s largest supplier of this material to car companies said “the word leather brings a considerable amount of value.” She said people recognize it from high-end shoes or designer bags they see in stores. Because of this and other factors it “stimulates a positive emotion.” But not all leather is equal.

“Where you source your animal from will determine your finishing,” Ashley said. “Each leather hide is unique in itself;” they’re just like human fingerprints. Every one of them will have different markings or defects. Interestingly bulls tend to have fewer wrinkles than cows since they don’t get pregnant.

Aside from these markings the animals are subject to insect bites and other trauma that can harm their skin and degrade the leather they yield. Elaborating on this she said certain ranchers don’t use barbed wire, which minimizes the scars and natural markings. This of course can result in a finer finished product.

Top-quality leather can come from all over the world. “North American hides are typically very good,” Ashley said. “German bulls are exceptional,” and typically they’re “very large” providing greater yields.

Aniline, Semi-Aniline and Vegetable-Tanned Leather

The highest-quality leathers available in vehicles today are aniline, semi-aniline and vegetable-tanned products. Generally they’re found in luxury vehicles, especially the latter of this trio.

The aniline leathers are “typically un-embossed” said Ashley. They may have some added texture but generally they have “a smooth, flat grain.” Additionally, “These leathers are kind of finished with more transparent dyes.” This means you’re able to see more of that natural texture.

With aniline leather Ashley said, “Obviously the quality of the hide has to be really good.” With limited top treatments you’ll see any imperfections that are present.

Vegetable-tanned leather is a product that’s crafted using organic materials. It’s reserved for very high-end vehicles and accordingly Ashley said, “Right now it is small volume.” GST-Seton AutoLeather’s Corinova brand vegetable-tanned leather is used in the Rolls-Royce Phantom, arguably the finest luxury car available today.

Full-Grain, Nappa and Smooth Embossed Grains

A step back from the products mentioned above are full-grain, Nappa and embossed leathers. Of this grouping Nappa is one that’s often touted by automakers.

According to Ashley, “Nappa is typically a full-grain leather,” which means the surface has not been removed or altered. Accordingly it “retains a lot of the original textures and markings of the hide.” She also said this kind of leather has a finisher applied to it for durability as well as more pigmentation than the aniline products. Despite these enhancements it still retains a natural look since “it’s the original grain surface of the skin that’s not been altered beyond the hair being removed.”

Ashley said that compared to Nappa, aniline leather is “very slightly pigmented,” which lets the surface grain show through. This can make the aniline product slightly less durable but softer to the touch for a more luxurious feel.

“Embossing is more there to enhance the grain,” said Ashley. This kind of leather can feature unique textures, from technical-looking finishes to exotic patterns to pebble grains. She noted that versions of these are often used in luxury cars to provide a unique look or feel.
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