When shopping for exotic skin merchandise, consumers are faced with three distinct choices: Alligator, Crocodile, and Caiman. I've noticed, especially after I went in the business of exotic skins that a lot of sales people are either uneducated or they're just trying to make a sale by telling you that something is what it clearly isn't... shocker!
Since there is a difference between these three skins that will namely affect price and the level of desirability of the skin, its important to be aware of what you're getting. Not all designers will mark on their finished product what species you are looking at either so its better to go in with some knowledge beforehand. In fact, don't pay attention to stampings such as "Genuine this or that". I don't want to be a whistle blower but I've seen reputable design houses stamp origin of species on their finished product that I'd guarantee was not what they marked it as.
Alligator, Crocodile, and Caiman are all members of the Crocodilian family but their ranking can go in the same order as far as prestige, looks, price, and quality of material.
Granted even within Alligator, you can have lesser grade skins compared to premium grade skins within that class, but the quality will show on the finished product. Lesser grades are used for projects like motorcycle seats, cowboy boots, the lesser priced house brand department store belts, etc. Premium quality is reserved for designer/ couture handbags and accessories.
ALLIGATOR (Alligator mississippiensis) which I refer to the as the "Rolls Royce of exotics" is a uniquely American Species found only in the southeastern part of the US from eastern Texas through Florida in fresh water swamps. Alligator tends to be the most expensive of materials due to softness, texture, firmness, and overall more uniformity in scale patterning. Also, there are fewer Alligators in the world in ratio to other Croc species. It may be hard to tell the difference right off the bat from Crocodile, especially if you don’t have a trained eye, but placing a crocodile bag next to an alligator in the same design often has the consumer leaning towards the alligator because of the said differences. It just looks more expensive and its rarer in quantity so we tend to prize Alligator as the premium in exotics.
- Visual Comparative: Umbillicus on Alligator
- One key difference between alligator and crocodile skin is that the alligator has an umbilical scar on its belly, similar to a belly button. This scar is in the middle of its belly, and looks like a cluster of very tiny scales in a triangular shape. Often times, designers will choose to showcase this unique marking placed on a distinct area of the finished product to prove authenticity of the alligator. Also, the belly tiles tend to be more squared off in shape than a crocodile which some find more visually pleasing.
CROCODILE is found all over the world and can be both freshwater and saltwater with the most common being Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Some particular species of Croc, the Porosus crocodile (Crocodylus Porosus) is a fairly good comparative to Alligator, as the characteristics of this skin is close to American Alligator. Price-wise, Nile Crocodile will often be retailed at a lower price than American Alligator but Porosus because of its rarity can sometimes be just as expensive as American Alligator.
- Visual Comparative: Pores on Crocodile Tiles (Scale)
- Here's where we get nerdy but bear with me: Crocodile have integumentary sensory organ pores, or ISOs. These pores usually contain a tiny hair that helps the crocodile sense its surroundings. After tanning, the hair is removed, but the pore will remain. The pore looks like a tiny hole in each scale which is a dead giveaway you're looking at a Croc product. Next time you go high end shopping, impress your friends and most likely the sales associate too by examining a product close up..look for that tiny hole in some of the scales and you can be sure to claim it as Croc. If not, most likely, you're looking at premium Alligator or the very prized Porosus Croc which has few if any of those ISOs. Also, Crocodile tiles tend to be more ovalish in shape than alligator in the belly.
(see all the single pinhole pores on each tile, easy to spot right??)
CAIMAN: Here is where my bias as a couture designer comes to play. The next step down which is a huge leap down in quality, beauty, and price is a uniquely South American Species of Crocodile called Caiman Crocodile or Columbian Crocodile. This is a cheap alternative to using Alligator and Nile Crocodile and is often marketed as simply ‘Crocodile’ which can be somewhat misleading or ‘South American Crocodile’ or ‘Columbian Crocodile’ in which case you know what you're getting.
This is easy to identify by the price tag you will be looking at. On the whole, Caiman skins can cost about 1/10th the price of a premium Alligator or Crocodile skin. You won't find high end designers working with Caiman. Usually when a designer picks Caiman, they stick to that skin to be able to reside within a price niche and still label their product 'exotic.' When made into bags and other products the retail price alone will serve as a prime indicator.
Visual variations to tell aside from price:
- Caiman Pock marks on Tiles
o Caiman crocodile is an easy one to spot because it has noticeably different tiles. The skin is characterized by pock marks on the tiles and the tiles tend to be concave in shape. Also, the skin is drier and not as soft as the above two. While you may have to look for telltale signs like ISO pores or umbillicus or overall patterning, etc to differentiate between Alligator and Croc, Caiman sticks out like a sore thumb.
- Caimans don't get as big as alligator or crocodile either, so often times you'll be looking at tiles that are about half an inch in width vs alligator or croc, depending on when the animal was harvested in its stage of growth can have tiles from half an inch in width all the way up to two inches in width.
- I've seen some even bigger, but those are specimen skins often displayed on walls and not used in bags because by the time they get that big, the skin is too marred and tough to work into fine handbags, etc.
Now go out there and even if you're not in the market for an exotic skin product at the moment, impress yourself and your friends by sharing your new found knowledge in figuring out what you're looking at. If you are in the market, having this knowledge is imperative. It's like knowing your four C's when going diamond shopping! Not all diamonds are alike per carat weight and not all Crocodilians are the same.