July 06, 2021 11 min read
One of the many beauties of the human experience is that we can enjoy our experiences. Unlike the rest of creaturely existence, we are allowed to take pleasure in the world. Our natural mode is not simply to be or to exist or to survive but to enjoy all there is. We are not like the cows, who simply eat, live, and die. In the space in between, we are invited to find joy in light, fire in wine, love in smiles from others.
In many ways, despite all that goes on, we are called to delight in the gift that we are, that we have been, and that the possibility of the future is open before us. We are given to the world, and in return, the world is given to us.
Perhaps one of its many gifts is a sensory experience, the ability to perceive and then explore the vast collection of persons, places, objects, and ideas that flow between and before us. With our sense-experience we can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear all that surrounds us, in its continually diversifying harmony.
Some of our experiences are incredible. Take, for example, the rush of a waterfall as the water cascades down a cliffside and creates its own pool at the bottom. You are taken by the sight, the power of nature as it effortlessly travels across rocks and down mountains. The sight itself is enchanting, but then there is the feel of the water that gently hits your skin as the water falls. But then there's the smell. And depending on where you are, it may smell different.
Many of our sensory experiences are not this singular, nor are they this distinctly memorable. Many slip past the walls of our memory and fail to be retained because of their seeming mundanity, that is, their ordinariness. They are another moment in a long sequence of other moments where there is no reason to distinguish one moment from another.
However, perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at things. What if every moment is special? Every sensory encounter is a gift to us, and every one is a gift that must be received in order to be special, to be set apart?
What if making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich is as interesting of a moment as witnessing the might of a cascading waterfall? Suppose it just takes a special sight, a moment of slowing down and listening in order to experience the ordinary as extraordinary?
After all, the singular moments of awe and wonder inspired by nature’s extraordinary artistic ability happen far less often than the making of breakfast, the chat with a stranger, the evening drink over a good book.
Now, what does any of this have to do with the smell of leather? We all recognize there is something special about its smell. Its scent makes us curious for the reason (or purpose) behind it. Why indeed does leather smell so great? Why does that matter?
If leather loses its smell, is it possible to reclaim its original scent? Let’s take a look and dive into detail about why leather smells the way it does, and why this smell is so great to us.
If you didn’t know already, leather is an animal hide, often sourced from cattle, sheep, and goats, that is treated through a process called tanning. Leather is the hide of the animal, which is then cleaned, treated, and tanned in order to be fit for many different products.
Leather is an incredibly durable material. It withstands the assaults of the weather, it is water-repellent, and if it is a high-quality cut like full-grain leather, will mature and age with a beautifully rich patina, meaning it looks better with age and use. And how many materials can you say that about?
The thing about leather is that it can be used for so many things. Although there are different types of leathers, or synthetic leathers which are artificially made, natural leathers, like full-grain, can be used for anything from cobbled dress shoes to military outfitted backpacks, equestrian saddles to luxury designer handbags, every day carries to the newest fashion trends.
Leather is in the conversation for the most versatile and deluxe material that we’ve mastered. No other material can be used as a soft and supple accessory and a weather-proof military bag. Its uses are, it seems, endless.
As briefly mentioned before, there are faux leathers or real leathers. They look impressive as imitations go. Vinyl (faux) leather is often used in commercial businesses, hospitals, and restaurants because it is nearly impervious to any stains. They can easily be wiped off the surface in an instant.
Similar to vinyl, there is PU leather, another fake leather, which is a product made by taking cotton or polyester and melting a flexible polymer onto the fibers. PU leather even wrinkles like normal leather, giving it an even more accurate feel than vinyl.
Then there’s bonded leather which is made by bonding polyurethane (the same polymer used in PU leather) to authentic or genuine leather scraps that would otherwise be thrown away. Bonded leather has the added bonus of both feeling and smelling like real leather, since it is, in fact, real leather, just some of the lowest quality pieces blended together.
Perhaps you’ve also seen suede leather. Suede is often used in dress shoes and some luxury fashion designs. Suede is intensely soft and thin, in stark contrast to normal genuine leather. It is less durable because of its mutability, but its texture is coveted.
Suede is made by turning over a standard hide and sanding the top layer of the underside of the hide. When this process is finished, the suede texture is accomplished.
As you can see, the world of leather is very diverse, with many cuts of genuine leather (like full-grain and top-grain leather), some remarkable imitations (like PU and vinyl), and other variations on authentic leather (like suede).
Typically, if you buy a standard full-grain leather wallet, made from the highest quality of full-grain leather, you will receive a product that can last a lifetime, one that grows with you and develops its rich patina alongside your adventures, making it perfectly unique to you and your life.
Where did leather come from? And why is it so important? How did we get to the point where leather is used for so many different intentions and purposes? Let’s briefly survey the history of leather, as it is a very long history indeed.
Leather is still used so often today that it’s difficult to imagine that it is the oldest material commonly used by humanity that we know of. It predates cotton and linen and was used to protect our ancestors from the harshness of cold climates since leather’s heat regulation is particularly great.
1850 was the first time that there was a revolution in the leather tanning process when chromium tanning was invented. Until then, the tanning process involved vegetable-based solvents known as vegetable tanning. There are some areas of the world where the ancient method is still commonly used, but these places are few and far between.
Modern tanning, which, all things considered, is a fairly recent invention, involves three fundamental steps. The first of these is to prepare the animal hide for tanning. The second step is the actual tanning of the hide, and the third phase is the processing of the leather after the tanning process is concluded.
After the initial death of the animal, unless treated, the hide will begin to decompose, rendering it useless for any purpose. So what tanners do is dehydrate the skin, using a variety of methods.
Again, depending on one where you find yourself, the method will vary. But the most popular methods are air-drying, salting, or treating the hide with a combination of acids and salts before being transported to a tanning facility.
After arriving at the tanner’s, the hides are then reinvigorated with moisture to restore their original texture and feel. They accomplish this by soaking the hides in a mixture of lime and water and then removing the hairs on the outside of the hide.
Again, depending on which type of animal hide is used, the feeling of the leather will change. If the tanner uses sheepskin, they will possess a thin and soft leather, while something like cowhide is significantly more thick and durable.
If the tanner seeks a full-grain hide they will only remove the hairs, leaving the topmost part of the hide intact with its natural blemishes and imperfections. The minimalism with which full-grain leather is treated allows the hide to speak for itself, its resilience to be emphasized, and the rich patina to develop with enough wear and time.
If the tanner seeks top-grain, they will remove the hairs of the topmost layer just like full-grain leather, but will then sand the hide to remove any regularities. This produces a thinner and more mutable hide, with a softer texture, but less durability.
After these decisions are made, the leather is cut to size and used for any number of products. If it is a full-grain leather product, then your item will be cut from one piece of leather, rather than be stitched together from a hodgepodge of disparate portions of various leathers, like anything labeled “genuine” leather can be.
You now know what leather is, the great wealth of different leather available and a few of the unique qualities that set them apart, and a brief history of the long and wandering history of leather.
Beyond leather’s usefulness and aesthetic, there is something about it that captures us more than other materials. We don’t think about cotton the same way, or linen, or wool. Leather has an allure that cannot be reduced to its commodity.
It’s the smell of leather that none of these other materials possess. It is that smell, like the overflow of a waterfall and the other mysteries of nature, that draws us towards it, that makes it a touch more desirable than its other material counterparts.
We know now that smells affect our mood. Different scents can change the way we feel, affect our thought patterns, and invite us into new movements of relaxation and calmness. Of course, the opposite is true too: other smells can shock us into disgust and even frustration. The way smell can affect us is part of the reason it’s so interesting, and one of the reasons leather is so attractive.
Smell is the sense that is most connected with memory. Because of this, when we get a waft of someone we love or a similar smell in their absence, we are reminded of them and it can have a visceral effect on our bodies depending on if the scent is attached to a positive or negative emotional experience or memory.
Why does leather smell the way it does? If you think practically, it’s just an animal hide––it can’t possibly smell nice. Here are a few of the most important contributing reasons as to why leather does smell so good.
The first contribution to leather’s distinct aroma is the tanning process. In the vegetable tanning process, exclusively natural ingredients are used. Barks, plants, and other of nature’s gifts are included in the tanning process, which gives it a complicated and distinct scent.
Moreover, vegetable tanning is a long process (it can take anywhere from six weeks to two months), and the leather spends extended periods of time among these ingredients and thus appropriates its scents.
With chrome tanning, the chemicals involved don’t smell particularly good; in fact, it is often the opposite. Instead, the tanner is careful to perfume the leather afterward which skillfully imitates the smell of weather involved in vegetable tanning, so it can still obtain that desirable aroma.
Oftentimes, leather is dyed to give it its special color. Take, for instance, slate or black leather, which isn’t naturally occurring. The dyes used to turn the leather dark generally come in one of two categories: natural dyes and artificial dyes.
As in tanning, the former has a naturally occurring scent that will compound the tanned leather hide’s smell. And the latter, too, has its own scent, which if done carefully, adds to the perfume smell of chromium tanning.
To take good care of a quality full-grain leather product, it’s a great idea to clean and condition it regularly. The cleaning part is rather simple: take a washcloth and a mild dish soap and gently wipe the surface.
For the conditioning, there are great natural options for leather cream which preserve the integrity of the leather and keep it protected and looking its best. Conditioning leather is also one of the contributing reasons why leather smells the way it does and is a great way to retain the smell of leather that it gains through the tanning process.
Given that leather attains its pleasing aroma from the tanning process, with enough time leather can lose the intensity of its smell. So how do you go about retaining this scent? There are a couple of simple steps to follow to prevent the leather from losing its scent, and a few methods that help restore its aroma if its smell isn’t as strong as it used to be.
Newspapers are a really porous material, which means they accept whatever smells they are around. Store your leather item in a newspaper, and the newspaper will absorb the scent.
Then, when you find your leather good not smelling as it once did, you can store it in the newspaper for a day or two, and then you will be set, and your leather item will be smelling much more like its original scent.
Sunlight and heat dry out your leather, and the drier it is the less robust it will smell. This is why conditioning is important. Conversely, if your leather stays in a damp environment for too long, mold can fester and rob your leather item of its great smell.
If bad odors have seeped into your leather, then apply a thin layer of baking soda on the surface, leave it overnight, and brush it off afterward. This should make your leather go back to smelling normal.
Grab a little bit of white vinegar and either spray or gently rub it onto your leather’s surface. Make sure it iswhite vinegar, and not apple-cider, balsamic, or red wine vinegar because that would be a big mistake!
After you apply it, take a cloth and wipe it off. This will also remove bad odors and restore your leather to smelling like new.
Let us return to where we began. Of all inhabitants in the animal kingdom, you are uniquely equipped to experience the world. Although plenty of other animals share our sensory capabilities, none of them canexperience their own senses in the way we can. We are free to enjoy ourselves.
When we look at all the different building blocks of the things around us, from canvas-bound books to soy wax candles, from acrylic paintings to spaghetti noodles, humanity’s imagination has taken the raw materials of the earth and made something new. As one of these things, leather is a perennial staple of every generation, built to last forever.
Known for its durability, for over thousands of years leather has been used to protect us from harsh environments and weather colder environments as our ancestors traverse as vagabonds from one continent to the next. And despite its ancient origins, leather is as relevant today as it's ever been.
Not only its durability but its beautiful aesthetic has permitted leather to persevere as not simply a utilitarian clothing item, but as the constituent of luxury handbags, and now Apple Airpod cases!
Sourced from different animal hides, including cowhide, sheepskin, and goatskin—among others—leather acquires part of its smell through the tanning processes. The vegetable tanning process, rooted in natural elements, gives the leather its trademark complicated aroma that is derived from the different barks and plants that are used in the tanning process.
If the leather is tanned with chromium, it acquires its smell through the perfuming process performed by the tanner. They will simulate the smell naturally gained by soaking in the vegetable tanning process and invest the leather with its popular scent.
Additionally, leather is indebted to the chemicals it is dyed in for part of its smell. If you purchase a black or red or otherwise unique colored leather wallet, then this leather has been dyed, and the dyes include a chemical scent that contributes to the leather’s smell.
If you want to keep your leather from losing its distinct aroma, then keep it in a newspaper, condition it regularly, and apply baking soda or vinegar to deodorize it when the leather encounters a poor smell. Remember to keep your leather product in a safe environment too; not somewhere that’s too hot, too damp, humid, or exposed to a lot of sunlight.
Leather is a material that has and will endure. And with these few methods, our plan is to keep leather’s great smell enduring too.