Jan 24, 2022 domenico Surace

What is the history of exotic leather? 

Explore the history of your exotic leather accessories 

Although it is associated with luxury items, such as the most expensive handbag in the world, exotic leather had been used since prehistory. In tropical areas, it was the main source of leather for hunter-gatherer tribes, fashioned into items such as belts or quivers.

They also served in the craft of ornamental and religious items, due to their magnificent patterns and colours, and their associations with revered animals. One of the most exotic leather these days, buffalo hide, was used by native Americans in all manners of life, their tribes movements being heavily linked to the migration of the bison. 

Antiquity saw the birth of horseback riding on large scales, in Mediterranean Europe, the Near-East and North Africa and societies that revered the horsemen.

The chariot riders of Numidia and Egypt were the backbone of their military and were a class of high respect and wealth. Tribal leaders and high-ranking officials had saddles embossed in lizard and snake leather.

With exchanges around the Mediterranean and following the silk road, exotic leathers like python and crocodile leather became available to European merchants and were a sign of exoticism. While the nobility of Frankish kingdoms and the Netherlands kept to religious standards and the cloth trades of the northern cities exotic leather flourished in the east.

Byzantium and the late roman world were very fond of these rare, luxury items. 

With the Middle Ages comes a bit of a dark age for exotic leathers, although some very specific ones were still in use. Not so much luxury items, they were chosen for their great durability and protection against abrasion. Stingray leather was used on the hilts of Scottish basket-hilted swords, Japanese katanas and Chinese swords.

With the birth of colonial empires, spanning the continents from the jungles of East-Asia to the tropical forests of Brazil, exotic leathers came back in the trade routes, and in fashion. Attached to cultural figures like explorers, merchants and pirates, or anyone who came into some money in the new world, the use of alligator or monkey skins surged. They were used on equipment and small items like jewellery boxes, map scrolls or adorning compasses. Funnily, in the game Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, taking place in the 16th century Caribbean sea, the players could craft a number of exotic leather accessories, and keep track of the sources of leather on their phone through a linked app.

Looking at alligator sources on your phone protected by your Marnelo python phone case is a true flash to the past. As the American colonies were established, some of the most profitable trades with the continent were the products of hunting and farming animal skins. Notably, Europeans were demanding bears and castors for furs and felt hats, but also bison, alligator, and other leather accessories.

Although not at all as prevalent these days as your typical cow or goat leather, these materials became part of the popular consciousness, they became cultural references. That can be in part attributed to travelling shows like the Buffalo Bill Wild West show, which toured France in 1905 and made quite an impression in Paris. 

How did we go from the wild west to Marnelo’s snakeskin phone cases?

Exotic leather offers for fashion something that cloth, even silks, and other kinds of leathers do not offer: the natural patterns of scales or feathers, engraved in the material naturally, and the bright colours of reptile scales that cannot be replicated.

In the Roaring Twenties, exotic leather became a true fashion statement, as many designers, working in the Art Deco style crafted pieces using these materials. They craved the rich patterns, the opulence of exotic leather pieces and crafted them masterfully into handbags, jewellery pieces, watch bands, dresses, and shoes.

They became the rage in private clubs, lit by the electric glow and crystalline shine of the epoch, and were worn by stars like Greta Garbo, Josephine Baker, in the Folies Bergères and on the movie screens. 

This was made possible by harvesting the leathers through hunting trips in the colonies, especially African holdings for France and Britain, which brought back not only skins, but stories.

Exoticism, novels about these foreign lands and their imagined histories, and even colonial expositions brought to the Old World an idealised idea of these places. They were imagined as full of riches, gold and jewels, silks and exotic leathers, opulent kings clad in them and explorers coming home with coffers of expensive and luxurious items. Today’s exotic leather phone cases are descendants of this adventure spirit, of this yearning for mysterious lands and their riches.

These accessories are as much fashion as they are symbols, and you can learn more in our article about the significance held by exotic leather and the animals they are made from. 

How is exotic leather sourced? Marnelo’s choice of ethical materials for your iPhone cases

Unfortunately, this craving also led to some more unsavoury consequences, notably an over-harvesting of certain species: for example, the Nile crocodile, sacred in Egyptian religion as embodiments of Sobek, were over-hunted by British colonists.

Starting in 1940’s, the populations began to drop, and it is estimated that 3 million crocodiles were killed between 1950 and 1980. A push for protecting these exotic species and their natural habitats started in the 60’s, with federal legislation in the US and laws passed in France to protect wetlands.

Other species were chosen, alligator for example, to be raised instead of hunted, with a greater control over reproduction and protection of the populations. 

In that push for more ethical and durable harvesting, Marnelo is doing its part, as you can read in our article about our partners and providers of exotic leathers.

In the 1980’s luxury items using exotic leather came into new life with the creation of one singular item: the Hermès Birkin handbag, born in 1984 of a supposed chance encounter between muse Jane Birkin and Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas on a plane.

It soon became a cult item, and spurn the reverence held by exotic leather, as a rare, well crafted, exquisitely designed source of fashion. It is now declined in dresses, belts, shoes, and even as the highlight on mundane items, luxurious in their own way, on original iPhone case, python Airpods covers, and even unique alligator Apple watch bands.