Python Escalades, electric blue crocodile pimp loafers, and ostrich jackets are the very embodiment of tackiness—luxury writ large and rendered tragically cheesy. Exotic skins, the tidy stripes of silky eel, the beautifully imperfect patterns of snake, and the smooth rectangular gradations of crocodile, were treasured for their uniqueness and rarity. Used sparingly on cigarette cases tucked into the inside pocket of a flannel suit jacket, or as a delicate clutch in a gloved hand, restraint itself underscored the preciousness of each skin.
Grabbing hungrily at the essence of exotic hides, rabid consumption has instead cheapened the unusual material, transforming it from a mark of quality and class to one of superficiality and vulgarity.
Revered for centuries as a luxury item, the utility of exotic skins has been obscured by its role as signifier of wealth. While exotic skins may have been part of the trousseaux of ancient Egyptian royalty, strong, water resistant salmon leather was used by the Nanai of Siberia for at least three of the things necessary for survival in the frigid north—clothing, tents, and boats.
Eel skin, prized for its thin and delicate feel, is far from flimsy. The tensile strength of eel is one hundred and fifty times greater than a cow leather of the same thickness. Crocodiles can lounge languidly on river banks and at the top of food chains in part because of the strength of their armor, a quality retained in the preserved hide. And in Medieval Japan, the handles of samurai swords were bound with the skin of stingrays. When preserved, the hide develops a coarse pattern of raised beads, perfect for keeping a tight grip on your sword, even when drenched in blood.
Closer to home, exotic skins were traditionally used for the items that were expected to endure time and use. The best steamer trunks, built to be knocked around in passenger ships and locomotives, were made of crocodile. The worn edges of a crocodile Hermes Kelly bag is testament to a time when an expensive object was meant to return dividends in longevity.
The use of exotic skins, however, is more than just a matter of taking it back from the tawdry. A hundred years ago, consumers, producers and poachers operated with the mistaken notion that anything in nature existed in endless abundance, when in fact they were driving animals of land and sea to the verge of extinction.
Conservation and wildlife management have slowed humanity’s species death count, but consumers will have to take responsibility for our insatiable appetites, and perhaps bear the lessons of exotic skins in mind: buy few and far between, buy for quality and longevity, and be wary of the slippery slope between the beautiful and the grotesque.