First things first: no, bonded leather is not real leather. Okay, yes, it has real leather in it - but how much is questionable at best. Bonded leather is literally from the bottom of the barrel. Leftover scraps of leather are shredded and ground to a near pulp, then bonded together using polyurethane or latex onto a fiber sheet. The varying degree of actual leather in the mix (versus chemicals) affects the smell, texture, and durability of the product.
Here are 4 simple ways to tell the difference between real leather and bonded leather:
Real leather: It seems obvious, but read the tag or label. If it’s real leather, it will proudly say so. If you see “100% leather,” “full grain leather,” or “top grain leather,” you’re headed in the right direction. (Learn more about the different types of leather).
Bonded leather: If the label doesn’t say anything at all about the material, it’s probably bonded leather (or even completely synthetic). Real leather would be proudly noted. Also, check the price tag. We love a deal as much as the next guy, but real quality leather is much more expensive to work with than bonded leather, so if the price seems too good to be true - it probably is.
Real leather: Look at the surface of the leather. Real leather is a natural material made from real animal skin. Its surface structure will not be completely uniform and will include blemishes and imperfections. (Hints of imperfections are a good sign in leather.)
Bonded leather: The surface of bonded leather is uniform because it gets resurfaced and imprinted by a machine (usually to mimic the grain of a higher quality leather - so watch out). A very regular, even texture pattern is a sign that it’s a machine-made piece.
Real leather: Remember again, real leather is a natural material. So, when you run your fingers across it, it doesn’t feel perfectly smooth. Press your finger into the leather - the surface will stretch and wrinkle a bit, like skin.
Bonded leather: When you run your fingers across bonded leather, it feels cold and unnaturally even. Also, when you press your finger into the surface, it doesn’t act like skin. Rather than stretching or wrinkling, the bonded leather simply depresses under your finger while still retaining its shape.
Real leather: If you’ve smelled real leather before, you know it has a distinctive “leathery” smell - it has a natural, organic, skin scent that cannot be accurately manufactured.
Bonded leather: There is no reliable way to fake the smell of real quality leather. Because it’s just the pulp of leather scraps mixed with chemicals, bonded leather, to varying degrees, has a plasticky, chemical odor (if any odor at all). Suffice it to say, if you want real leather, you don’t want bonded leather. (Okay, if you’re buying a leather-bound Bible, it’s probably bonded leather -- not a big deal. God will forgive you.) But, when you’re buying a leather bag or jacket, be sure you know what you’re getting.