Leather is a charming, timeless and luxurious material, that has been used for centuries to create the finest goods, ranging from leather satchels and bags to warrior hide armour all the way back in Roman times. In recent years, however, purchasing genuine leather has become a somewhat challenging task. Not only is there a plethora of different types of leather, there has been a come up of imposter faux synthetic leathers, posing to be the real thing. Referred to in various disguised titles, such as ‘vegan leather’, ‘PU leather’, ‘microfibre leather’ amongst many others.
Why is this a problem? Well, put simply, goods made of leather are a class above any synthetic imitation of leather, in terms of feel, appearance, durability and even social perception. Genuine leather has a rich natural character that can not be synthesised.
Manufacturers and leather goods stores alike are finding new and ingenious ways to sell fake (synthetic) leather disguised as the real natural thing. Meaning today the market is flooded with leather lookalikes at considerably cheaper prices. It is even more common to see products that are made only partly from real leather, labelled as ‘genuine leather’. Leading to some ambiguity in what is actually classed as a genuine leather item.
Thus, if you are in the market for a quality leather item (that can be very expensive) it is essential that you are able to tell the real from the fake. Fortunately for you there are some tell tell signs aswell as tricks to determine whether the leather you are considering buying is in fact real.
10 key steps (methods) to tell if leather is real or fake:
- Check the label
- Check the surface appearance
- Feel the texture
- Smell the leather
- Press into the leather (elasticity)
- Look for rough edges
- Splash the surface with a drop of water
- The fire test
- Check the price
- Understand the different types of leather
1. Check the label
The first and simplest thing you can do when determining if an item is indeed real leather is to check the label. The vast majority of real leather goods will proudly present a label, tag or similar to publicise that they have used real leather to make the product, high-end leather brands will even provide information on the type of leather used, the animal that it came from and other interesting material information. For instance, it may say ‘Made from Full-grain cow leather’ indicating the leather is of the finest quality. If you see a suspicious, somewhat ambiguous label such as, ‘Manmade material’ then it is almost certainly not genuine natural leather. Finally, if there is an absence of label then this should also be a red flag, suggesting an inauthenticity of the leather used, as when real leather is used manufacturers are proud to show it off.
2. Check the surface for imperfections
Genuine leather is a natural material, it is essentially the skin of an animal and has therefore for the majority of its life been exposed to the trials of the natural elements. On top of this each animal is unique and different in its own right, so we’d expect to see variations in their hides. Thus, look for imperfection and inconsistencies in the surface of the leather. Unique pebbles, pores, scratches, wrinkles and creases are natural to see and are a good thing. You should however be weary as manufacturers are becoming better skilled at mimicking the natural imperfections of leather, this can make buying online all the more difficult.
3. Feel the texture
Run your fingertips over and through the surface of the leather. If its real you should feel small subtle variations in the surface, whether it be grooves, wrinkles, bumps. The key is it shouldn’t all feel the same as a natural hide isn’t uniform, it should have a varying texture. If it feels perfectly smooth and consistent then chances are its fake leather. Another thing to feel is the warmth of the surface, genuine leather should be relatively warm to the touch as it did once belong to a living and breathing animal, whilst faux leather will be cold and stiff.
4. Smell the leather
Real leather has a distinct, natural, musky leather smell. It retains this smell long after the tanning process and throughout the rest of its life. If you’re unsure how it should smell then go to a store that you know definitely sells real leather goods and have a sniff around of their various leather items, to train your nose. Then also find some synthetic, faux leather items and smell those. You’ll quickly come to see that the smells differ drastically. Faux leather basically smells like plastic as that’s what it’s made from, whilst real leather will have a musty smell like animal skin as that’s what it originally is.
5. Press into the leather (elasticity)
Press your finger firmly into the leather and look for wrinkles and creases, much like real human skin. If it is real leather you should soon see it return to its original shape. Whilst faux leather and synthetic materials such as PU will depress down when you press them and stay that way even after you’ve let go due to their greater rigidity and relative inelasticity. In addition to this real leather should also change colour slightly when bent.
6. Look for rough edges
Genuine leather of any kind will always have rough, coarse and somewhat uneven edges. This is because the hide that leather is derived from has multiple layers which are separated and will slightly fray over time. On the other hand faux leather has smooth, even and perfect edges, as it is made from plastic meaning the edges are cleanly cut.
7. Splash the surface with a drop of water
Genuine leather absorbs moisture and small amounts of water quickly. In contrast, when water meets faux leather it simply puddles up and disperses on the surface. Thus, to test the authenticity of leather you can splash a tiny drop of water from your water bottle on the leather good, if you see it soak up and absorb the leather relatively quickly then chances are its real.
8. The fire test
Carrying out a fire test is a bit more of an extreme verification step and isn’t something you’re likely to do in a high street store unless you want to take the chance of being arrested. Regardless, it is essential you conduct this test carefully and only if you are doing it at home or are able to gain permission; the fire test is a good final test. It involves holding a lit match or lighter up against an inconspicuous, out of sight part of your leather product, that you are not too concerned with damaging, such as the underside of your leather bag, for about 5 seconds. Real leather should only char slightly and smell like burnt hair, whilst faux leather like PU will actually catch light and smell like burning plastic.
9. Check the price
Its important to be aware that genuine leather goods will rarely ever be cheap, especially if they look like they’ve been well made, are of high quality and from a known brand. Products made fully of real leather will typically be expensive. So, when it comes to leather good shopping a tell tell sign is the price; on the high street genuine leather bags tend to go for about double the price of their faux leather counterparts. It is however important to bear in mind that the qualities of real leather vary significantly and this can cause notable differences in their prices, aswell as leather derived from different animals hides. Thus, just because a leather good is relatively cheap doesn’t necessarily mean its fake it may just be crafted from a worse quality leather. Though as a rule of thumb faux leather is much cheaper than genuine leather.
10. Understand the different types of leather
Read up on the different types of leather, leather finishes, etc. before you go shopping arounds so that you know what to look out for. The more you know about leather and its various forms the less likely you are to be deceived and make the mistake of buying a fake. Finally, the colour of leather is not an indicator of its authenticity. Wildly coloured leathers can and often are genuine. Just because a bright green coloured leather looks unnatural it doesn’t mean it isn’t actually made from real leather. Colours and dyes can be added to be real and synthetic leather, so ignore colour and focus on the pointers discussed throughout this guide as your authentication process.
Wrapping things up
Ultimately, real leather is of superior quality and aesthetic appeal to its synthetic faux leather rival, with the price to match accordingly. If you are in the market for a high-end leather bag, accessory, jacket, etc. then you’d be far better served investing in a genuine leather variant, that will last many many years of intense use, rather than a PU or vegan leather clone that may look equally impressive from a distance but will fall apart and degrade rapidly over time. Our recommendation is; take your time, do your research, carry out the leather authentication tests discussed in this guide and only commit to buy when you’re sure in what you are getting.