Is Patent Leather Really Leather?

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There are a lot of terms that people tend to ascribe to slick and glossy accessories, such as: patent leather, patent vinyl, wet look vinyl, and PVC. Is it all the same? And is "patent leather" REALLY leather?  And how do I know?  This question interests me both as a consumer and a seller of vintage men's and ladieswear, under the name  VintageGent

To answer the first question: No, and to answer the second question, Yes, as long as it is correctly identified. To answer the third question: we'll discuss some techniques.


The process originated with the high laquering of leather, called Japanning. In more modern times, Seth Boyden is credited for perfecting the process of creating patent leather in 1818, thus called because the process once was patented. . Back then, a linseed coating was bonded to the leather to create a high gloass finish. Today, its typically a petroluem product that is bonded. This is not to be confused with poromeric imitation leather

Poromeric Imitation Leather is what a lot of folks refer to as "patent leather" when actually it isn't. It has a high glossy finish and is a petroleum product or a vinyl. Because of the material, color can be more consistent in the manufacturing process and a greater flexibility produces every color of the rainbow and then some. The vinyl is typically backed with polyester.

The first poromeric leather was released in 1964. It was easily cleanable, but stiff and not breathable, which made it ideal for structured handbags, but not so ideal for shoes. DuPont ceased producing of it in 1971. There are other patented names of glossy substitutes such as Clarino from Japan.

PVC.  Actually, PVC is polyvinyl chloride.  Its an ingredient in what makes "PVC vinyl" but not the end product.  As this is the common term in clothing and accessories and not a chemistry lesson, we will go with "PVC."   PVC vinyl used in handbags, belts, and other accessories.  It is much more flexible than poromerics, thus making it more versatile and more practical for some uses.  It is commonly used in accessories, such as belts, trim, some handbags such as tote bags, aprons, and some raingear.   The material also has a following in the boudoir and fetish markets. 

How to identify genuine patent leather.
There is just not "one" definitive answer...but here are some clues...

This may help whether you have an item in your hands, or are shopping online.

1) Items may be stamped "genuine leather" or "genuine patent leather."  However, there are times when the gold stamped lettering fade, labels tear, or are seperated. 

2) When a genuine item gets damaged at the corners, it will behave as leather does and you will feel leather or a sueded edge depending on how serious the damage is. On poromeric it is likely to tear and you may see or feel a backing. 

3) Look for higher end hardware, and higher end linings. Items with leather or sueded leather linings are always genuine. Occasionally they may have satin or faille.  Vinyl linings indicate PVC. PVC can have fabric linings as well, but never leather.  Poromeric typically havesatin weave fabrics, polyester, or felt, but makers sometimes get creative.  But never leather.

4) Color. Traditional, genuine patent leather doesn't come in the wide range of colors poromeric leather comes in. Look for dark and traditional colors such as black, brown, red, navy, and the occasional jewel tone with black being the most common and the others rarer. Pastels would be a rarity, or they would be poromeric as it is difficult to dye leather lighter than its natural color unless it goes through further manipulation or treatment. PVC can also come in just about any color.

5) Date. The older an item (pre mid 60s) the more likely it is to be genuine patent leather. But it doesn't mean it is.

6) Pin test.  If you absolutely have to know, you can take a hot pin and gently and evenly poke a tiny hole in the leather.  If the pin melts or goes through the top layer only, its leather.  If it goes all the way through...its not.  Not recommended unless you must, as it will damage the item.

In the market place.

It is true that "patent leather" has entered the colloquial dialect with accepted usage covering both actual patent leather, and any glossy vinyl that mimics it. It is not merely a matter of sellers shying away from what is accurate for fear of no one finding their items; most of the educated public does not differentiate themselves.    It requires both the disclosure of the seller and the inquisitiveness and education of the buyer to make sure that what you see is what you get. If you do not think your item is genuine leather, please clarify in the listing by indicating as such. 

Believe it or not, there are folks who prefer to look for poromeric or PVC for the color selection, or for the qualities of the material.   Buzzwords such as "patent leather-like vinyl" will help steer potential shoppers to your listings, while also giving you the opportunity to educate and to clairfy that it is poromeric.   "Wet Look" vinyl is a good way to describe PVC, and it is searched too!   Searching "genuine patent leather" in descriptions will help narrow down the search if its leather you seek.

Have fun, and I hope that this brief guide helped you find exactly what you are looking for, or didn't know you needed!

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