In this day and age, we’re surrounded by leather; it’s in furniture, in leather goods such as bags, shoes (especially dress shoes), belts, portfolios, pen pouches, and more. Today, we’ll discuss the differences between chrome-tanned leather and vegetable (or “veg”)-tanned leather, which is better in various applications, and what you should invest your money in.
Really nice leathers, especially exotic leathers can be very expensive and so people expect them to last for quite a while.
In recent years, vegetable leather has gotten an increasingly better reputation especially among leather and shoe enthusiasts. Paired with the fact that the vast majority of all leathers in the world today is chrome tanned, many people now associate that a high quality leather must be veg tanned and chrome tanned is always inferior. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth, no matter if you use leather for upholstery, gloves, shoes, or other leather goods.
Before we talk about vegan and chrome tanned leather, we have to understand why hides or skins need to be tanned in the first place to become leather. Even though there are technical advancements today and people are trying to grow leather in a petri dish, the leather you can buy today that is not vegan is always derived from animal hides or skins.
It’s always called hide if it comes from a larger animal like a cow or steer and it’s called skin if it comes from a smaller animal like a lamb. So, leather is nothing other than a hide or a skin that is preserved so it can be used and it doesn’t mold or rot or decay.
The process to get something from a skin or a hide that may dry out or rot to leather that is beautiful and long-lasting is called tanning. The term tanning is derived from tannins which is a natural substance that you can find in tree barks, leaves, and fruits for example. Through tanning, we make skins more durable, flexible, and also softer and much more beautiful.
Vegetable tanning dates back thousands of years and relies on an extended and complex process of soaking animal hides in vegetable tannins. This process can take up to two months, with multiple treatments and highly skilled laborers to ensure the desired quality and appearance.
Chromium (chrome) tanning is a relatively new approach, dating back to 1858, as tanneries looked for ways to expedite the process and save money. Chrome tanning, which is currently used for approximately 90% of the leather market, can take as little as two weeks to process and costs considerably less than vegetable tanning as a result.
Vegetable tanning is a natural process, relying on tree tannins and water. By contrast, chrome tanning relies on chromium salts and tanning liquors that must be heavily managed and closely monitored to minimize environmental impact.
In terms of durability, both vegetable tanning and chrome tanning have their benefits. Chrome tanned leather is fairly water-resistant making it best for products that may be subjected to heat or humidity, while vegetable tanned leather is thicker and holds up to more rugged or daily use. With proper care, vegetable tanned leather can last for many decades.