If you're bike nerd enough to have heard of Brooks England, or want to see product design taken to its sexy logical conclusion, treat yourself (at least your eyes) to a Berthoud. These French saddles are an even blingier take on traditional leather butt holders for your bike. While younger and less famous than the now non-English made Brooks, they already have a cult following among bike tourers and designers alike.
The first Berthoud I ever saw IRL was on a bike grump's gorgeously restored '70s Peugeot, where it felt both natural and out of place. The splotchy leather looked like it had been nicked from a catahoula leopard dog, or lost a fight with bleach. On closer inspection, I would have noticed a few other weird features to make it stand out, if subtly.
Gilles Berthoud makes a lot of interesting bike products, from panniers to bicycle frames, all designed around the pragmatic elegance of classic French bike touring. The rise of randonneuring and cyclocross have brought more attention to rougher riding styles in recent years. With them has come an increase in riders who beat the hell out of their bikes. As the popularity of his bags and fenders has grown, Berthoud grew impatient with the quality and durability of the leather saddles offered and decided to add them to the roster, after a few modern tweaks.
With one foot firmly in the OG camp, Berthoud's design combines thick veg tanned leather with unorthodox materials and improved hardware. The frame the leather is stretched to is (shockingly!) made from hard polycarbonate plastic rather than traditional steel. This was initially feared to have a lower life expectancy, but in the 8 years since launch, few complaints have lasted and the material seems to do a far better job of absorbing bumps.
The second major update is the large and in charge screws that hold the leather upper to the frame. These allow the user to easily take the seat apart for leather care, and subtly destroys the anti-DIY party line of certain other brands. The Torx heads are cushioned in big brass washers and spaced further outboard than normal, putting them outside the range of your sensitive butt parts. The company also offers replacement leather uppers, if you do manage to wear one out.
The third update is the sleek tensioning system. As leather saddles wear they stretch out, just like shoes or belts or your leather party slacks. To keep the tension butt-friendly, most seats have a built in tensioner integrated into the nose of the saddle. One of the side effects of twisting a bolt or wedge to increase tension is the twisting of the seat rails relative to the leather upper. It won't destroy your ride immediately, but it's not good. Berthoud's system adds a machined aluminum brace—designed to hold the frame square under tension—and tightens with a single easily accessed allen bolt.
This video gives a short and shockingly hands-on look at the Pont de Vaux factory and the human scale process for producing their gorgeous saddles.
While I respect all types of production, the coolest parts come down to the company's respect for the character and quality of leather as a durable material. After individually selecting the section of rump leather used, the leather cutter hand-places each die individually to maximize the orientation of the grain and thickness along the saddle. The seat's thickness and flex gets tested multiple times throughout forming and assembly.
The process of pressure chamfering the bolt holes is particularly satisfying, and gives me some closure on the "why don't more seat rivets rip?" question I've carried in my heart for years. It's a pretty fantastic process.
L-R comparison of the Berthoud Touring, Brooks B17 and Brooks Swift saddles by Ocean Air Cycles
Leather seats are as old as bikes. While they might seem tweedy or overly aesthetic they're pretty minimalist when compared with contemporary bike seats, which largely rely on a multi-layer construction to provide the support, padding, and flex required over the course of a ride. This material sandwich leads to worn out top coverings, delaminating seams, and foam breakdown. In short, the quest for a lighter seat has lead to a good deal of waste and a LOT of trial and error when finding the right seat for your butt. Tensioned leather seats can't totally fix the trial and error part, but they do have the benefit of breaking in to your body's custom curves over time. They also offer flexibility and durability that distance riders flock to. The big downsides are initial cost and upkeep, but if you care for them like nice shoes they'll live a similarly long, good looking, good feeling life.