Alligator leather is an amazing product. Its unique, almost prehistoric texture seems to have a natural draw to it. Especially in certain brown tones, alligator leather tends to age beautifully, developing rich tones that give the product not only the depth of color, but also an esteemed sense of luxury. There is nothing like an alligator strap, on your Haute Horlogerie watch, a preference that is shared with the vast majority of consumers all over the world. In fact many of them, just like us, also like shoes, bags, wallets and other accessories made from this material.
However, this material has another side to it, a much darker one. PETA recently released a video of alligator farms in Vietnam, where the animals are kept in undesirable circumstances, and often killed in a very inhumane way. This is not the first scandal that rocks the exotic leather trade. In 2010 Swiss TV exposed undesirable practices with farms in Asia. In 2015 Hermès came under fire when PETA went undercover at farms, supplying alligator and crocodile hides to the brand in Texas and Zimbabwe, where the animals were fed with the meat of their brothers and sisters that were killed the day before.
Of course, a product cannot be truly luxurious, when the animal that provided the skin for it, lived and died in a much worse way, then the cow on a McDonalds hamburger. Although there is, of course, no such thing as truly humane leather, we all share the responsibility that the animals that provide us with their skins, had a humane life and a swift end.
PETA claims that these alligator farms supply brands like Hermès and Louis Vuitton, among others, but we could of course not confirm that. With the previous incidents, luxury groups like Richemont and Swatch Group responded swiftly by sending full audit teams to the farms that, often indirectly, supply them. These audits revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Although the exposed cases by PETA, may be isolated incidents, every single one, is one too many. It reflects poorly on the industry, the luxury brands, not to mention us, as human beings for the suffering the animals have to go through.
Importing crocodile and alligator products in many countries, requires CITES-papers. This verifies only that the animal used for the product was bred in a nursery and not caught in the wild. CITES was designed to regulate the trade in exotic animal (products), mainly to protect wildlife against over-exploitation, and prevent the trade in (products made of) endangered species. It was never designed, to keep the situation, in which the animals are bred, kept and harvested in check. Nevertheless do luxury groups like Richemont and Swatch group check the CITES papers of their suppliers, to see which farms the hides originally come from and if the supplier in the mean time not switched over, to a place where animal well fare might be an issue.
This is far from the perfect method, and the answer to truly solve this issue is complicated. However, that should not stop us from even trying. The first step to be taken here is indeed with the luxury industry itself. For watch straps, the Industry set crocodile and alligator leather, as the golden standard. Almost every watch sold with a strap has one made from alligator leather.
When the consumer returns to the shop, to replace the strap after normal wear and tear, the choice is usually between the various colours of alligator and not the choice between alligator and a variety of other leather types like deer, calf, pig or horse to name a few. And what’s also an important factor for the industry to stick with alligator; the price! For a good alligator strap, high-end brands like Cartier, Patek Philippe, Lange & Söhne and many others charge easily over Euro 450.- and make a really nice profit.
It is actually quite surprising that none of the brands have taken more definitive action, to ensure their customers that the leather they use, comes from humane farming and harvesting. They could invest some money into a certification system, ensuring that each and every hide, and therefore product made with it, meets certain criteria. The industry does this for the precision of their watches (Chronometer certification) and even the quality of the finish of their watches (Geneva Seal), so why not for humane farming of their straps?
This will proof to consumers that their luxury product is consciously luxurious from start to finish, but it will not solve the entire problem. Watch brands, even the luxury groups as a whole, are not the only ones that use hides. Anybody who ever visited Thailand or other Asian countries knows that there are many stores that sell products made from hides, with absolutely no guarantee how humane these animals have lived and died. Although CITES will limit the trade of these products to many countries, it is up to the governments to enact legislation to fix this problem once and for all, because even for the luxury groups their power is only limited to the farms, they actually do business with.
We decided to write this article, since we’re sure that watch collectors and connoisseurs are not always aware of the bare situation, at a lot of the farms. Their purchases create the demand and also share responsibility for this situation, because it ensures that the industry will keep this lucrative type of leather as their ‘standard’. But at the end, it is up to you, as a watch collector/consumer, to wield your power, pass good judgment on what luxury truly means to you. Try to think beyond alligator leather, since there are many more creative choices. After all alligator leather is too precious and should not be the standard strap choice of the Watch Industry.
Martin Green, George Cramer