Patent Leather: The Story of a Glossy Fashion Favorite

Published March 5, 2021
Patent Leather purse

Patent leather is a high-gloss leather choice for handbags and other items. Patent leather is waterproof and a popular purse choice for formal events, such as weddings and proms.

What Is Patent Leather?

Patent leather is a fine grain leather that is coated to have a glass-like, glossy finish. The first mention of patent leather was in Britain sometime around 1793. English inventor, Edmund Prior, received the patent for the coloring leather in 1799. Another patent was given to English inventor, Charles Mollersten, for a leather chemical finish that was glossy.

American Patent Leather Popularity

In 1818, patent leather was introduced to Americans. New Jersey inventor, Seth Boyden, improved the original formula. Unlike his English fellow inventors, Boyden never patented his process. He created a linseed oil based lacquer coating that was applied to leather. The coating made the leather impervious to water and scuff marks and it quickly became a popular choice for shoes, boots, and handbags.

Modern Patent Leather

Modern patent leather isn't quite as resilient as the 1800s patent leather. Many of the patent leather options today are coated with plastic instead of the linseed oil lacquer, making it susceptible to scuff marks.

What Does Patent Leather Mean?

Originally, patent leather was a term coined to explain the glossy finish. It was derived from the patented process, hence the term, patent leather.

Black patent leather purse

How Patent Leather Is Traditionally Made

Traditionally, the fine grain leather was given a coat of linseed oil mixed with lampblack. Lampblack is a pigment that is simply the soot left behind when the combustion of coal or petroleum products isn't completed. Once the first coat was dried, another coat was applied and allowed to dry.

Layers of Coatings Are Sanded

This process is repeated similar to the way decoupage is applied, with each coat sanded before the next coat can be applied. The patent leather sanding process is done with pumice stone. The leather skins are cured for a month. A final coating of varnish is given to the leather once it has been stretched and tacked onto a frame. The leather is then baked over a period of three days. To finish the hardening process, the leather is exposed to full sunlight for 10 hours.

Modern Patent Leather Process

Some American patent leather manufacturers use what is known as chrome tanned skins. While chrome tanned leather is real leather, it is treated with a chemical solution to dye the leather hide. This process has proven to be cheaper and a faster way to tan the hides.

Drawback of Chrome Tanned Patent Leathers

The chrome tanned leather process makes the leather hides softer than the original hides used for patent leather. As a result, the polished finish isn't as glossy or brilliant as the original patent leather.

Advantages of Chrome Tanned Patent Leather

However, there is a plus side to the chrome tanned leathers. The patent leather is less prone to become brittle or to crack.

Linseed Oil Coatings Replaced With Plastics

In a more modern world, the linseed oil was also replaced with various plastic coatings. This made the patent leather process much cheaper and faster to produce. However, it was the introduction of synthetic resins that made patent leather more affordable to consumers and mass production a reality.

Is Patent Leather Real Leather?

The majority of patent leather on the market today isn't like the original patent leathers. Most of what you see as patent leathers are plastic fabrics with plastic coatings. If a patent leather purse is real fine grain leather, the tags and/or descriptions will state that it is patent leather, often giving the kind of leather. If it is advertised as patent leather but isn't, it will state under materials, polyurethane or another synthetic material.

Patent leather mini purse

Patent Leather That Isn't Leather

There are many substitutes for patent leather that aren't leather. These are vinyls, PVCs, and other synthetic products.

Is Patent Leather Good Quality?

The patent leather available today isn't the same high quality of a century ago. While it may be fine grain leather, the coating is a resin or plastic and isn't comparable to the durability of the original patent leathers.

Designer Patent Leather Bag Colors

You can find almost any color in a patent leather bag. From white, brilliant colors of the rainbow, to sultry black, there are many choices available. For example, the house of Gucci features the iconic 1969 retro Sylvie in black and emerald green. Kate Spade features its Italian patent leather Romy Patent Mini Satchel in dark magenta crush and base blue.

Impact of Patent Leather in Fashion Industry

Patent leather has been part of the fashion industry for over a century. There have been many changes in the manufacturing process, but it remains a favorite look for formal wear and other occasions.

Patent Leather: The Story of a Glossy Fashion Favorite