Repeat after me: Bonded leather is not leather.
Leather is animal hide that has been carefully skinned, dried, tanned, and dyed. It is a wondrous material: strong, soft, and durable, it only becomes more supple and homey with age. This is true for every use: moccasins, saddles, car seats, rucksacks, belts, shoes, purses, upholstery, book covers, gloves, baseball mitts. You love leather.
Eventually it will deteriorate into the dust from which it came and to which we all shall return– but this can be a very long time if it was properly prepared and cared for. In the meantime, every stage of its life is precious, from newly-produced to sturdy vassal to faithful but aging to careworn to delicate ancient.
Because you love leather, a little corner of your mind is cheesed off when leather doesn’t behave like leather. This is because what you have encountered is not leather, it is bonded leather. The reason I’ve italicized both of those words in the previous sentence is to make it easier for you to remember that they are synonyms: when it comes to leather, “bonded” means “not”. In the legal world, an alleged perpetrator released on bond may be innocent of the charges at hand, or he may have a clever enough attorney to remain free after a trial by twelve men good and true, but in the material world bonded always means guilty, guilty, guilty.
“Cracking good bonded leather, Gromit!”
Bonded leather is an animal skin that goes through the same process described above– and then is fed into a metal mouth to be chewed up, spit out, mixed with chemicals, turned into a noxious pulp, poured into molds and flattened into shape, and finally coated with a plastic on one or both sides that is then imprinted with a fake grain. Ultimately it has more in common with a chicken nugget than anything recognizable by a Sioux as coming from the Great Spirit’s grand gift to man known as deer.
Have you ever spent a lot of time in a “leather” office chair, expecting it to be reasonably comfortable and luxurious, only to find that after a few minutes, you begin to shift and pull your sweat-stained pants from the back of your knees and try to thwart the wedgie-in-training you have developed? After a few days, you notice that you are finding excuses to stand up and walk around, avoiding work, and after a few months you begin to justify spending a lot more money for a real leather chair which this clearly is not.
And yet all this time, you can’t wait to get home and sit in the (real) leather recliner that you still feel guilty about paying way too much for (or so says your wife), but that fits your body and makes that soothing crushing noise when you sit in it, and caresses your body, and that whiskey never seems to stain, or at least stains in a meaningful nostalgic way. When you shift your weight, a part of your mind flashes a Proustian memory of your grandfather sitting in his leather recliner, muttering about the missed double-play he just watched as he carelessly drops ashes on the ever-patient chair’s arm.
Without putting too fine a point on it: after years of use, a real leather chair smells of…leather, and life. A bonded leather chair smells of…whatever its spent the most time in contact with. Ultimately, leather looks like leather, feels like leather, smells like leather. Plastic may get the first two of the three, for a little while anyway, but…the nose knows.
While I admit there are degrees of quality to bonded leather– some can look, feel, and in a retail store even smell quite leather-like– ultimately each material resorts to its true nature: leather behaves like leather and plastic behaves like plastic. One is a gift from God, one is an insult from DuPont.
Bonded leather is slowly taking over. I was recently shopped for a baseball glove as a present for my wife, and since my own glove is rather decrepit after decades of rotating use, neglect, and abuse, I thought I would look for myself too. I was depressed but not shocked to find that the only affordable gloves are Not Leather. They have all kinds of fancy deceptions like Grip-All Pocket and Sure-Fine Fingers, but the ones that are real leather boast that they are ALL-LEATHER. They are also three times as expensive as the standard model, and seem to be reserved for serious amateur athletes. (Upon reconsideration, I went home and oiled up my old mitt, figuring I could get a few more neglectful years out of her. I bought my wife a mostly leather one, but she didn’t like the size and returned it for a mostly bonded version with which she was very happy. I mentioned the issue but erred on the side of not spoiling her delight.)
I’ve found this tends to be the rule of thumb across most product types: the surest way to identify real leather is that the makers will boast that is Real Leather. Barring that, assume that the “leather” in question is out on the street on bond, awaiting trial.
Here is another shopping tip: if you are shopping in person, check the edges and seams. If you can clearly see a top layer, stay away. If the edge is too straight, with none of the loose fuzzies you get from leather: stay away. If the holes for the stitching seem to keep their shape a little too well– and if the thread itself is nylon or polyester that would cut through your own skin if pulled tight enough– it’s probably not real leather.
Online, stay away from anything that doesn’t explicitly state (and hopefully even brag) about the quality. And consider the source: Though leather is known worldwide, look for products from North America or Italy for the real thing. As with most things, avoid anything made in China. One can only imagine
who what it may be made of.
One must take extra care in these days of online retail to not buy bonded leather. Without the ability to see and feel, much that is sold as “leather” is actually the bonded variety. Surely much of this is the result of the creeping ignorance that is infecting our society– both on the consumer and production side– but that doesn’t make it any less pernicious.