How can you tell a high-quality wallet from a poor-quality knockoff? You can say what will last and what won’t just by looking at, feeling, and smelling the wallet. Here’s how.
We won’t go into details about the quality of leather other than to say that you should be looking for full-grain or top-grain leather. They’ll last 50 times longer than the different grades but might only cost twice or three times as much. But you can’t always tell full or top-grain by appearance. Companies are good at masking lower-quality leather, such as genuine or bonded leather, and faux leather and making it look better than it is.
They can’t imitate the feel and smell of high-quality leather, so that will be your first clue as to whether a wallet is worth buying or not. This applies to all types of wallets from the slim credit card wallets, to the larger passcase wallets. If you run your finger across the surface of the wallet, it should never feel like smooth plastic or wax. Leather will have a finish on it, but it should be light enough to feel the texture of the material still. Any wallet that has a thick finish is probably not full or top-grain leather. It’s most likely a lower-quality leather or faux leather that has been coated in polyurethane to supply the durability and attractive appearance that the primary material lacks.
You can confirm whether the leather is high or low quality by smelling it. If the wallet is coated in polyurethane or thick finishes, you’ll smell the chemicals over the leather. The type of wallet you want doesn’t carry a chemical odor. It smells like leather and only leather. It smells earthy or musty with a sweet tang. It’s unmistakable. You can’t create a fake scent that smells like leather that will last, and the real leather smell doesn’t fade or go away. No matter how old the wallet is or how long it’s been sitting in the store or the seller’s warehouse, it should smell like leather. You can’t even make the smell go away if you clean it, keep it in your pocket for years, or leave it outside for a month. The scent is that much of a tell.
You can tell how thick the material is by looking at the edges. A good rule of thumb is that the central fold of the wallet should be as thick as two quarters for the two layers. The pocket flaps should be as thick as one quarter. Material thinner than a quarter will have a hard time keeping its shape. It will be too floppy, not at all like the stiff leather a wallet should be made of. Thin leather will also wear through after a couple of years of constant use.
Be careful, though, as low-quality wallet manufacturers have a trick for making their material look thicker than it is. They will make the leather (usually genuine or bonded leather) thin to save even more money on the already cheap material and then insert stiff cardboard or thin plastic material between the layers. The result is an inexpensive leather wallet that will wear even faster than it would without the inserts. Putting a hard plastic insert behind thin leather and fabric lining wears on both sides of the insert as you continue to use the wallet and slide it in and out of your pocket.
You can read more about leather and the prices that affect the different grades in our Leather Economics explanation.
If you’re curious, the best stitching material is nylon or polyester with cotton being an acceptable but slightly less durable material. Unless you work with nylon or polyester, though, you probably won’t be able to tell the material type just by looking at the wallet.
More important than material, and something you can tell by appearance, is the sewing pattern of the stitching. As you examine each edge and each pocket, you should see two parallel lines of stitching. This double-stitched pattern reinforces each line as the wallet and pockets flex from opening, closing, and inserting cards or bills. If you don’t see the double-stitch design, you might see an X pattern crisscrossing the stitching. The X pattern stitching is also an acceptable form of reinforcing the stitching and is quite attractive in some types of wallets.
If you don’t see some reinforcement with every line of stitching, the manufacturer has taken shortcuts and done the minimum amount of stitching possible to hold each layer of the wallet together. That means that it will also keep the wallet together for a minimum amount of time.
The edges of a wallet are another tell-tale sign of its quality. If you look at the sides of the wallet, it will either have a cut edge or a turned edge. A cut edge shows the raw, bare leather along the bottom of the wallet. A rolled edge is folded inward with the stitching holding the turn in place. It shows the folded edge of the leather, appearing the same as the exterior or interior surface.
You won’t see many wallets with cut edges unless they’re handmade. In handmade wallets with cut edges, you will typically find either a burnished edge, painted edge or the raw edge. We prefer a natural edge as it allows you to see exactly how thick the leather is, as well as how deep the dye penetrates the rawhide. Burnished edges are made by rounding out and hardening the edge. A quality burnish can make the wallet edges look really nice. So no need to shy away from the wallet if it is burnished. Personally, painted sides hide too much and so I tend to stay away from them.
Where the layers of leather meet, they should be blended all the way down the wallet. Each layer of material should be slightly thinner at the edges to make a smooth surface all the way down the side of the wallet. You don’t want to see a staircase as you look down the profile of your wallet. If the manufacturer simply stacked and sewed the material into place, they didn't care enough to put in the extra work required to blend the layers.
While you’re inspecting the edges, follow the cut up and down to the corners. Are the corners rounded or square? Square corners are easier to make but wear faster as they brush up against the fabric of your pockets. Rounded corners slide in smoothly, preserving the material.
Well-made pockets are especially crucial as they’ll be getting a lot of use. Let’s start with what you don’t want to see.
If you pull the pockets out a little and look inside of them, you don’t want to see a lip where the leather folds over to the inside of the pocket but then cuts off near the top of the interior. The lining might be fine, but that lip will make it more difficult to pull your cards out, and your cards will wear that material down with repeated friction. It’s much better for the material at the front of the wallet to continue all the way down the inside.
Some wallets, however, do not have pockets that fold over. The leather is cut straight across the top of the pocket. A straight cut is perfectly fine provided that the leather is thick enough for one layer to be sturdy on its own.
And speaking of thickness again, you will often see pockets that have rolled over edges. The rollover creates a decorative edge on the front of the pocket. That decorative edge, however, can be made in two ways. The material at the rollover has to be thin enough to fold and lay flat. Wallet makers can either make the pockets very thin so that they can roll the top over or they can make the pockets thicker and then manually thin only the top of the pocket. Keeping the pocket thick up until the rollover makes the pocket more durable while providing for the style of the rollover. You’ll only see a suitably thick pocket rolled over in very high-quality premium wallets.
Finally, pockets should not extend the full length of a card. If the pocket covers your card, it will be challenging to pull your cards back out. To do so, you’ll have to stretch the front of the pocket, creating stress on the stitches and loosening the material.
The last part of your visual inspection should examine the overall craftsmanship of the wallet.
Glance at each cut and each line of stitching. Are the lines straight? Do the pockets and stitching line up parallel or perpendicular to one another? You don’t want to see uneven cuts or a wallet assembled or sewn at off-kilter angles. Each line and stitch should be perfectly horizontal or vertical relative to the rest of the wallet. The only exception will be the rounded corners of the main body of the wallet.
So, what are the marks of a good wallet?
The 5 best passport wallet designs. Rated for materials and durability, capacity and convenience, and overall price value.
The top 5 men's credit card wallet designs for durability, design, and price. Full-grain leather to polycarbonate shells.
Comparing the best leather money clip card holder models from $8.95-95. Full and top grain to genuine leather. Carrying capacity and color options.
A review of the top 5 trifold leather wallets with vertical pockets. Want to know which wallet is the best value for 2018? Check out this article to find out!
The 5 best bifold money clip wallet designs rated for durability, design convenience, purchase options, and value.
The 5 best vertical bifold wallet designs rated for material durability, design, capacity, convenience, and value.