Why Genuine Leather is Anything But Genuine

Many fashion forward consumers know to seek out "real" leather rather than imitation leather such as PVC or PU, which are a fancy way of saying artificial or plastic leather. Unfortunately, though shoppers are becoming more savvy, manufacturers and retailers are creating an uneven playing field by using industry terms that lead the shopper to believe they are getting a good product, when in fact they are not. 

Like most shoppers, if you see an item listed as "genuine leather", the typical reaction that pops into your mind is "Yay, it's the real deal!" In reality, genuine leather is a legitimate industry term that would shock most customers when they realize the low bar for quality for something with this designation.

During leather production, quality hides often have the top layers split off and used in top grades of leather. After the top layers are harvested, the lower remaining layers are the byproduct that is used to create genuine leather. The marketing angle is that these products are still made from "genuine" leather as it is technically an animal hide, but it is a far cry from the fine leather goods that a typical customer would think of when it comes to real leather.

Unlike the quality top grain leather, which is soft, buttery and durable, genuine leather is often melded with a top layer of PU (polyurethane) leather to create a product that has the look, appearance of real leather, while retaining the "genuine" leather designation. However, this type of top layer is often prone to cracking, chipping and splitting over time, so while the base leather may be real leather, the top layer will only deteriorate over time. 

Unfortunately, manufacturers resort to these types of naming tricks as top grain and other fine leathers are prohibitively expense for most buyers. Who can truly afford a $100-$200 belt after all?  That said, shoppers still want real leather, so this is why genuine leather has made its way into all sorts of everyday leather products: shoes, belts, bags, gloves and apparel.

How to Spot Genuine Leather

As you move from genuine leather to top grain leather, you will notice a change in the appearance of the leather. Both genuine leather and top grain leather are treated to improve their appearance and increase their durability. However, differences in the material and processes used for each can help you identify which is which.

Genuine leather has had an artificial grain applied to it. It is then treated with stain or dye. It may be given a polyurethane coating. Top grain leather has had its imperfections removed, its surface sanded and a finish applied. As a result, genuine leather can look more like synthetic leather due to a uniform appearance or the glossy finish of polyurethane. Top grain leather displays the natural grain. It retains a softness that causes it to appear to be thinner, and it will have more flexibility than genuine leather.

The lower layers of hide used for genuine leather don’t have the dense, elastic fibers and natural surface grain of better leather. Depending on regulations for your area, you could even find bonded leather, the very lowest quality of leather product, labeled as genuine leather.

Bonded leather is made from leather scraps that have been processed and reconstituted into a leather product that also contains fiber and polyurethane. It is embossed with a pattern to give it the appearance of higher quality leather. The embossing and added color are surface treatments only, so although it might look fine at first glance, bonded leather is weak and easily damaged.

Use Your Sense of Touch

The leather’s softness, or how it feels to the touch, is called its hand. The hand of genuine leather is generally stiffer than top grain leather, which is suppler. Touch the leather and appreciate the smooth, flexible surface top grain leather offers. The fibers in top grain leather are dense, so the weight of the leather should feel substantial even though its surface is soft. If possible, crumple the leather a bit in your hand, release it and watch it rebound. Top grain leather will regain its shape and not wrinkle.

The fibers in the layers of leather used to create top grain leather have more elasticity than those used to create genuine leather. This is what gives it a softer feel than genuine leather. For this reason, you can also expect top grain leather to last a lifetime, whereas genuine leather may only last for a season. Genuine leather is more likely to split or peel than top grain leather. Top grain leather is the better choice for frequent or everyday use. Top grain leather excels at retaining its finish and resisting surface wear.

With practice, you will be able to identify genuine leather at a glance, whether it is on the rack or on a person. But when shopping for leather goods, the most obvious sign of genuine leather is a tag or stamp that identifies the item as such. This term can be a selling point for uninformed buyers, but you now know there are better quality items available. Once you spot the label “genuine leather,” put that item down and move on to the next rack. You want a product that is quality through and through. Your leather goods should stand up to close examination.