I have made this mistake myself, and I thought I would share what I learned that alligator is not crocodile is not caiman when it comes to skins used for boots (or other accessories.) What are the differences among these skins?
Alligator, crocodile, and caiman are all members of the Crocodilian family. However, how they rate in final appearance, durability and usefulness for skins from which to make boots is quite different. Those differences also affect the final pricing of boots made with any of these skins.
All skins are graded by quality. The finest quality is used for items like women’s handbags and couture accessories. Lesser grades are used for cowboy boots and other products like motorcycle seats and belts.
Alligator is the high-end of exotic skins used to make boots and other products. Alligators are found only in the southeastern part of the United States from eastern Texas through Florida in fresh water swamps. Alligator hides are the most expensive for bootmaking because there are fewer alligators in the world. Also, alligator hides are expensive due to the softness, texture, firmness, and uniformity in scale patterning.
It is hard for an untrained eye to tell the difference between alligator and crocodile. But alligator skin looks more expensive and that appearance alone drives up prices due to how perceptions affect value. “Expensive look” = “higher demand” = “higher price.”
A key difference between alligator and crocodile skin is that the alligator has an umbilical scar on its belly, similar to a belly button. A crocodile does not. 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. A few fine bootmakers will feature that umbilical scar in the middle of the foot of “alligator belly” boots. Also, alligator 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. Crocodiles live in both fresh water and salt water. The most common crocodile is Nile Crocodile. Some particular species of crocodile, the Porosus crocodile (Crocodylus Porosus) compares closely with 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; however, Porosus crocodile is just as expensive as American Alligator because this croc is rare, too.
Caimans are relatively small crocodylians that inhabit Central and South America, and are sometimes called “Columbian crocodile.” Caimans are easily farmed and are grown for their skins — much like ostriches are farmed and grown for their skins as well. That is why caiman is a less costly alternative to using alligator and Nile Crocodile skins for boots.
Connoisseurs of exotic skins will tell you that caiman is a huge leap down in quality and beauty of a skin compared with alligator or Nile or Porosus crocodile because the skin is not as soft, the tiles are smaller, and does not have the same luxurious appearance as alligator skin.
Caiman is easy to identify by the price tag — compared with genuine alligator skin boots at US$3,000/pair, caiman skin boots of the same design would be priced at about US$600. I own a pair of real caiman boots (image right) that look great.
Caiman skin is easy to tell 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 to-the-touch as alligator or crocodile. While you may have to look hard to distinguish between alligator and Nile crocodile, caiman skin is very noticeable.
Caimans do not get as big as alligator or crocodile either. Because they are smaller animals, the “tiles” (sometimes incorrectly called scales) are about one-half inch (1.3cm) while alligator or crocodile tiles vary from one-half inch to two inches (1.3 to 5cm).
Something else to know — like some snake skins — there are two major appearances of these skins. “Hornback” is the rough, sometimes even pointy, scales found on on the top or backside of the animal, while belly is the smoother side of the skin. Alligator, crocodile, or even caiman belly is smooth, while hornback or dorsal (back) is rough. Some men prefer the hornback scales which are classic for alligator or crocodile boots and make a statement unto their own.
How does this affect the exotic boot-buying man-in-learning?
If you are considering boots made with alligator, crocodile, or caiman, learn how to distinguish the differences of the skins so you can be certain you are getting what you are paying for. There have been some instances where boots were labeled “alligator” when they actually were the caiman family variety, yet the price of the boots was in the genuine alligator range. Beware!
Boots made with these exotic skins will last a long time. Each skin is about as durable as the other. Just because alligator and Nile or Porosus crocodile are more costly does not mean that those skins are more durable or will last longer than caiman.
Some manufacturers of boots offer “alligator” or “crocodile” boots when they are actually offering a print. Yep, that’s right — the pattern of alligator or crocodile tiles imprinted on synthetic material, like my pair of Rudel cowboy boots shown to the right. Some manufacturers sell imprints as if they are the real deal — so check the label on the inside. Look for “boots made of man-made materials” if you suspect the price to be too good to be real. Authentic alligator or crocodile boots will be priced well in excess of US$500 for caiman and over US$2,500 for alligator and crocodile.
Summary: alligator, crocodile, and caiman skins are excellent, higher-end choices for cowboy boots. Some of these skins are higher-end than others. You get what you pay for, provided you know what you’re getting.
Life is short: be an informed bootman!