What is Patent Leather?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Sporting a high gloss finish, patent leather has long been established as leather that is considered uptown and formal. This form of leather owes its invention to Seth Boyden of Newark, New Jersey. During the year 1818, Boyden began to investigate the possibility of creating a version of leather that was treated in such a way that the material retained its protective qualities and durability, but also had an appearance that would be decidedly more dressy than work boots and similar leather goods.

Patent leather was originally made shiny by applying layers of linseed oil.
Patent leather was originally made shiny by applying layers of linseed oil.

Using a formula that was based on a series of treatments using layers of linseed oil-based coats, the new shiny leather began commercial production on 20 September 1819. Boyden’s efforts resulted in the production of glossy leather that quickly caught on the perfect compliment for formal dress. Almost two centuries later, patent leather still maintains the status of being part of a formal look for men and women alike.

Patent leather has an extremely high gloss, and is often used to make shoes.
Patent leather has an extremely high gloss, and is often used to make shoes.

Patent leather begins life as a superior grade of fine grain leather that undergoes a process to give it it's glossy look. Originally, this was accomplished by applying layers of a linseed oil finish to the leather, gradually creating the sleek appearance. As time went on, the invention of plastics changed the way this leather is produced.

Plastic finishes were able to produce effects similar to the application of several treatments with linseed oil, with the advantage of considerably less expense on the part of the producer. Over time, the development of synthetic resins further simplified the process and cut production costs even further, making the mass production possible.

Characterized by a glass-like finish that catches the light, the typical patent leather accessory is a solid black. In addition to the mirror like finish, it is also virtually waterproof, while still retaining a very flexible texture. The visual elements of this leather have made it a sought after material for all sorts of formal accessories. Just about all men’s footwear produced to be worn with tuxedos is made of patent leather, as are many formal types of heels for women. Clutches and small handbags for women are also made using this material, as are some formal wallets and cigarette cases. It is nearly always considered an integral part of formal wear.

With almost two centuries of history, patent leather is one type of material that seems to keep going no matter what current fashion trends dictate. It seems that as long as there is a need to dress up for an occasion, this material will be found in closets and tuxedo shops across the country.

Patent leather is sometimes used to make clutches and handbags.
Patent leather is sometimes used to make clutches and handbags.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


@anon40201: Maybe you need to do some more research. Some patent "leathers" are not actually leather, but a PVC imitation. Go to a local shoe store and look for patent shoes -- you will see in the tag that many are entirely man made materials. Patent leather used to be made from real leather only, but now many are synthetics that use the word "leather".


It was invented and *patented* (hence the name) in Europe, and then brought to the US and reverse engineered by Boyden. It was not invented by him.


how can one make patent leather soft?


Patent leather finishing plants were also called

Japaneries when I worked in the leather business

50 years ago. Colonial Tanning Co. at that time made about 50 percent of the world's production of patent leather.


What about "Japanned leather"? I know that "Japanned" was a term used in the 19th century for black shiny leather and metal fittings on military gear. As I understand it, this term comes from the process using lacquer coming from Japan via China.


How can I tell the difference between patent leather and a synthetic fabric? They look and feel the same. Don't they?


Does the patent leather finish contain pvc or lead?


I was in the military for eight years had the same pair of shoes (patent leather) for my dress uniform, and they are still as high gloss as they were eight years ago. But then again I only wore them once or twice a year


Patent *leather* is still leather! No! It is *not* vegan! It is cow skin!


hi, i'm from italy. an important question for "animal friendly": Patent leather is vegan? ciao


It is waterproof. The only thing is that it will lose its shiny finish overtime.


I just have a question about patent leather does anyone know if patent leather is waterproof or does it need to be treated with waterproofing or some type of protection Thanks Annette

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