For most Americans, that rich, sweet, musky smell of new-car leather is a big part of its enduring appeal. Not so for the Chinese. They can't stand it. And the problem has become so frustrating for premium automakers there that one U.K. supplier of the most luxurious hides employs a Chinese leather technician to help sniff out the problem.
"China is a tough market. They just don't like the smell of leather," says James Muirhead, head of international sales for Scottish leather firm Bridge of Weir. "As soon as someone manages to track down odorless leather, the China market is going to open up."
Bridge of Weir supplies high-end automotive-grade leather to the likes of Lincoln, Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley and Rolls-Royce. And for those makers operating in China, it's their biggest complaint. To JLR, which builds cars in China, it's a huge deal. "It's one of the main topics they bring to the table when we have discussions with them," Muirhead says.
The leather smell comes less from the actual hide and more from the organic dyes and pigments used to treat it. When the leather is warmed, those organic substances release their signature smell. The answer is to use more synthetic dyes, which is where the nose of Bridge of Weir's Chinese technician comes in.
"That's one of the main focuses within his job role," says Muirhead.
He says they're closer to creating odorless leather, but still too far. For a traditional processor of hides, this is not a dream job.
"It's not the easiest thing to do because to me, it has such a beautiful, fragrant smell," says Muirhead. "But the Chinese market is huge."