A process that was called “Japanning” and meant high lacquering of leather to give it a glossy, shiny finish can be called the birthplace of the concept of patent leather. So is it some kind of leather? No, it’s a finish just like Suede. You would dip leather in a resinous varnish and then polish it with linseed lacquer to give it a shine that even the mirror shine on regular leather couldn’t match. Since the process itself was patented at one point, the name Patent Leather was born.
If we go back in time, we’d find that the earliest patent leathers usually started off with very fine leather as the base. With advancement in tanning technology and chemical treatment that has been in use since 1858, today any type of leather can be given a patent leather finish. No longer are we tied to the linseed oil varnish. Instead, polyurethane and acrylic are the materials of choice due to their inherent characteristics today. Polyurethane gives you a hard stiff finish, which is both shiny and durable. Acrylic on the other hand gives a more flexible final product. As a result, manufacturers combine the two for the best possible finish that is nice to touch and feel’s sturdy. Other than those two, the usual materials that are essential to the tanning of leather are still used widely. Salt for curing the hides, disinfectants, lime or other caustic chemicals for de-hairing, various acids and salts for de-liming the hides and getting them to the proper pH balance for tanning, chromium sulfate tanning salts and powders, as well as water for various other stages.
Since patent leather is just the name of the finish, the usual steps that any leather goes through apply to patent leather as well. These are:
- Preparing the hide
- Soaking, liming, and bating
But it’s only the 4th step that we are concerned with because that is where all the magic happens. All the previous steps apply to any leather. A common finishing technique involved a spray application of polyurethene and/or acrylic. But because of air pollution concerns, the technique changed to the usage of a flow coater. Think of a conveyor belt with the liquid polyurethane/acrylic dispensers right on top of it. When the hides pass beneath the tank/dispenser, a waterfall of overflowing liquid hits the hide and it becomes coated with the finish. The hides then pass through a heated tunnel to dry under the use of infrared or ultraviolet light. After the first coat dries off and is completely absorbed by the hide with all its pores filled with the material, the hide is put through the flow coater again, this time for a middle coat that includes a dye. Once again, it is dried and put through the flow coater for a third and final top coat. This top coat is clear, becomes the hardest layer, and is both shiny as well as waterproof.
Patent leather is often confused with poromeric imitation leather also referred to as Artificial Leather which has a petroleum product bonded to the leather instead of the materials we discussed above. No doubt this vinyl or petroleum product gives it a high glossy finish, but the fact remains that it is still backed by polyester and not actual leather. In order to identify genuine patent leather and to be able to differentiate it from poromeric, you need to look at the finer details when making your purchase and should actually know how to tell if a product is made of leather in the first place!
Traditionally, genuine patent leather doesn’t come in the wide range of colors poromeric leather comes in. If a style of footwear has every color from the rainbow, chances are it is poromeric. Colors such as black, brown, red, navy etc. is right about where the patent leather needle begins to offer resistance. It is difficult to dye leather lighter than its usual natural color and therefore, every shade under the sun can only be applied to poromeric.
When wearing a tuxedo, nothing looks better than a pair of black patent leather shoes. However, patent leather has found more love on the feet of women who’re able to rock it with a lot of outfits. No wonder patent leather appears more often on booties, flats, pumps, lace-ups, loafers and a variety of other footwear meant for women along with their favorite accessory – handbags. Overall, as a finish, it’s a must have albeit in traditional colors but even if you do dive into the rainbow, you now know the difference between patent and poromeric.