The short answer: leather smells good is because it is designed to. Leather tanneries use a combination of perfumes, chemicals, oils, and waxes to give leather its unique smell.
The long answer: Scent is one of our most powerful senses and is strongly linked to memory. What comes to mind when you close your eyes and think about what leather smells like? For many people, the smell of leather is associated with authority, strength, and power. It might bring up memories of your father's work boots, a favorite leather jacket, or even war.
The psychology behind leather smell
Different fragrances impact how you feel and think. You might like the smell of leather because it is tied to a positive memory and the act of recalling it affects your mood. A good smell creates an opportunity for your brain to store a new pleasant memory. And on the flip side, bad odors can trigger strong emotions and be linked to a negative memory. You could say that the way you perceive the smell of leather is truly all in your head.
TLDR: Leather smells good because it is designed to and because scents tap into memories and emotions in your brain.
How can I prevent leather from losing its distinctive smell?
The number one thing you can do is not get your leather wet. If you get your leather wet, use a clean cloth to wipe the moisture from the surface as soon as possible. Make sure to let it air dry completely before using it again, usually for a few days. If your leather doesn't completely dry off it may develop mold and mildew. This will definitely have a bad odor that is hard to get rid of. Be sure to keep your leather out of direct sunlight and away from heat - it can dry leather too quickly and cause it to crack over time.
It is important to gently clean leather to keep the good smells in and the bad smells out. Regularly conditioning leather with natural oils will protect your leather products so they last longer.
What is leather?
Leather is a material made from the skin or hide of an animal, typically from a cow, sheep, or goat. The untanned hide is treated to preserve it using synthetic or natural tanning agents called tannins. The entire process turns the delicate skin into durable leather that can be turned into various leather products.
Leather is a popular material because of its durability and longevity. It is used to make items that need to withstand regular abuse, like boots and shoes, furniture, gloves, and belts. When cared for properly, a quality leather item can last for decades. If it is made with full-grain leather, you can expect it to age beautifully and develop the rich patina that leather enthusiasts love.
Real leather vs faux leather
Faux leather products can often masquerade as real leather. The trick to identifying them comes down to the smell. Faux leather has an unpleasant smell from the glues and solvents used to create it. Good quality real leather will smell slightly earthy and even a bit sweet.
What is Faux Leather?
Faux leather is known by many names - PU leather, leatherette, imitation leather, and vegan leather are just a few. The vast majority of faux leather is composed of fabric with polyurethane melted into the fibers. Fake leathers may mimic the soft texture and feel of real leather but their bad smell gives them away.
Another category of leather-adjacent material is bonded leather. Polyurethane is used to glue authentic or genuine leather scraps together that would otherwise be thrown away. It vaguely feels and smells like leather, but it's made with the lowest quality parts and is guaranteed to fall apart quickly.
This genuine leather belt is so worn it reveals its made with a thin layer of leather over scraps and glue.
More recently, various manufacturers are experimenting with new environmentally-friendly faux natural leather made from pineapple leaves, mushrooms, and even mangoes. The longevity and durability of these products have yet to be proven since they are so new, but they seem promising.
Types of Tanning Processes
There are two main processes used to create leather - chrome tanning and vegetable tanning (aka veg tan). It is common for leather to be tanned with a combination of both methods.
Vegetable-tanned leather process
Vegetable tanning uses tannins derived from plants like tree bark, leaves, and other natural ingredients. It can take many months to tan a cowhide using a strict vegetable tanning method, but the result is worth it. Vegetable-tanned leather has an earthy, complex smell that sets it apart from other types of leather. Vegetable-tanned leather is also known as natural leather or pit tanned leather.
Chrome leather tanning process
Chrome tanned leather is made tannins from, you guessed it, chrome. It is a much faster method of creating leather, making it the preferred method for many tanneries. Since chrome tanned leather is common its scent is likely what comes to mind when you think of a leather smell - a mild smell that isn't quite as earthy or sweet as vegetable-tanned leather.
Hybrid Tanned Leather
Most often, quality leather is made using a combination of both methods. It is a best of both worlds approach - chrome tanning for the initial preservation of the hide, then vegetable tanning to achieve the final color or vice versa.
Why leather smells bad
Unsurprisingly, some people don't like the smell of leather. Cheap leather can sometimes have an unpleasant smell resulting from oils or other foul-smelling substances used during the production process. You might not notice the smell until you wear the item in warm temperatures. It will start smelling stronger because heat and humidity cause the leather to release noxious fumes.
Why does my belt smell like glue?
Another reason your leather might smell bad: it's not really leather at all! You could be smelling the odor of glue used in leather-ish products like genuine leather and various types of faux leather. These materials have an unpleasant smell because they contain lots of glue and strong chemicals. A cheap leather product might say it's "real," but its bad smell is a dead giveaway about its dubious origins.
How do I get rid of the strong smells from the glue?
The easiest way to avoid bad odors is don't buy cheap leather products in the first place! They need a considerable amount of time to air out in fresh air and don't last nearly as long. Instead, consider purchasing an item made from full-grain leather - it has a lovely leather smell that won't offend your nose.
Why do my leather shoes smell bad?
First, check if they are really made with leather - you may have been duped into buying a synthetic leather product! High-end leather boots will most likely have that leather smell you are dreaming of. Try airing them out a little our sprinkle a little baking soda on the insole to absorb any offending smells.
The smell of leather is complex - it is part psychology, part production process, part personal olfactory "taste." Whether the smell of leather makes you smile or cringe is entirely subjective. Some tanning processes yield better-smelling leather than others, and bad odors are a clear sign of cheap or fake leather products. Now that you know everything there is to know about the elusive scent of leather, you can appreciate the type of leather we use to make our one-of-a-kind belts.
About Obscure Belts' Leather
Our leather is made especially for us from a respected artisan tannery, Seidel Tanning Corp, in Milwaukee, WI. They are family owned and operated business specializing in making exceptional leather for over 75 years. They tan our leather hides to our exact specifications, yielding a final product that looks good, smells great, and is incredibly durable. When you buy one of our distressed or full-grain leather belts, you know you're getting a belt of the highest quality.