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What Is Patent Leather?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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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.

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 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.

Is Patent Leather Real Leather?

Though patent leather may seem significantly different than other typical leather products, it is genuine leather. Patent leather is coated with plastic, varnish, or lacquer, which gives it a shiny surface. The coating is usually thin, so you can still see the hide underneath. The production process for patent leather has changed since its inception and has become more simplified as time has gone on. In modern times, this material goes through the same basic process as untreated leather until the final stages.

Be aware that faux patent leather exists. This synthetic material is an artificial imitation, usually made out of PVC or plastic, and is not the same quality as genuine patent leather.

Patent Leather vs Leather

The process of making patent leather is the same as for regular leather up until the end. The process begins with animal hides. Untreated leather needs specific animal hides for creation, because the quality of the final piece depends on the quality of the skin. However, you can make patent leather from animal hide of any kind because it gets a finish at the end of the process.

The tanning process consists of preparing the animal hide, soaking, liming, and bating. Untreated leather is done when the tanning is completed, while patent leather goes through an added step of finishing. The untreated product is passed through a liquid acrylic and dried to give it a shiny gloss.

When shopping for goods, there are a few main differences between patent and untreated leather. Patent leather is glossy and has an almost glass-like finish, while untreated leather is usually subdued and has a matte finish unless it has been recently oiled.

One thing you are likely to notice when shopping for these leathers is the difference in their price. Because it can be done with a wide range of hides, patent leather is generally cheaper and faster to produce, which makes the price lower than traditional materials.

Regular leather requires expert care to ensure the end product is soft and high-quality. When dealing with untreated leather products, you should be more careful. Untreated products do not have the added coating of plastic or lacquer, which means they can be scratched or damaged easily. They are also susceptible to water damage. Patent leather products are waterproof thanks to their finish. Keep this in mind when buying shoes or other accessories.

How To Clean Patent Leather

When you see that your patent leather item has a decreased shine or is smudged, it's time to clean it. Since patent leather is a little different from the regular variety, the cleaning process is also different. While untreated products typically need to be oiled and polished, patent leather is simpler to care for, and cleaning is more manageable. You can buy a patent leather cleaner from a store or apply some easy cleaning methods using household items.

Usually, all you need to do is wipe down the product with a small amount of soap and water to keep the piece looking clean and shiny. Begin by dusting off any dirt or debris and then use a soft toothbrush to get into any hard-to-reach places. Next, use a soft, damp washcloth with gentle soap and wipe down the outside of your item. After ensuring you have removed all of the dirt, dry off the surface with a soft, dry cloth. Let the piece finish drying for at least 24 hours.

Another method of cleaning is using a pre-moistened wipe. This method works if you don't have soap and water nearby or want a more simplistic cleaning method. There are many brands of gentle wipes that will not damage your goods. However, read the ingredients list to ensure there are no harsh chemicals. At the end of cleaning, apply a leather conditioner to keep your patent leather looking new.

If you run into any issues with scuffs, try buffing them out. To do this, use mineral oil and a soft cloth and rub. If this doesn't make the scuffs less noticeable, try applying shoe polish of the same color as the material.

Items you should not use to clean your patent leather include rough cloths, hard or stiff brushes, or harsh detergents and cleaners. To keep your patent leather items in their best condition and free of dirt or scratches, store them in garment bags or shoetrees. You can find various sizes of garment bags for clothes, accessories, and handbags, so be sure to put these items away correctly.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon966741 — On Aug 21, 2014

@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".

By anon251352 — On Feb 29, 2012

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.

By anon105734 — On Aug 22, 2010

how can one make patent leather soft?

By anon86649 — On May 26, 2010

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.

By anon75048 — On Apr 05, 2010

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.

By staceyk — On Mar 26, 2010

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

By anon67464 — On Feb 24, 2010

Does the patent leather finish contain pvc or lead?

By anon42583 — On Aug 22, 2009

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

By anon40201 — On Aug 06, 2009

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

By anon34460 — On Jun 23, 2009

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

By anon29881 — On Apr 10, 2009

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

By anon23647 — On Dec 30, 2008

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

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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