Carbon Fiber Is the New Leather

We've all succumbed to the siren song of luxury—splurged on a pricey gadget we have no legitimate need or use for. Frequently, such decisions are wrapped up in authenticity. Other times all it takes is one sexy material.

You know what I'm talking about, Mr. Carbon Fiber Chopsticks.

Fact: Few materials can instill lust in a gadget geek's heart like carbon fiber. Okay, those geek hearts primarily reside in males. But still, this composite tends to exert a bewitching hold over all who gaze upon it. And seeing it in action only increases one's ardor. While it doesn't handle sudden impacts or shocks very well, carbon fiber is the reinforced super reed that'll bend but never break. There's only one problem: For nearly all of us, carbon fiber is not only impractical, it's downright unnecessary.

Which is part of what makes its prevalence in the gadget realm today so puzzling.

How is it that such a specialized material evolved into one of the most fetishized synthetic fibers in the gadget world? Is there some inherent quality that makes it utterly irresistible when slathered on top of dashboards or infused into iPad cases? And seriously, why would someone make a carbon fiber refrigerator?

Carbon Fiber Is the New Leather

The answer has to do with a couple things. Part of the current allure is undoubtedly tied to carbon fiber's origins. The composite was developed for (and found an early home in) products relating to the aerospace, automotive, and sports equipment industries. Things like missiles and aircraft brakes. That made perfect sense. Owing to its unique properties–-an insanely high strength to weight ratio and torsional stiffness-the material was an ideal fit for anything that took a lot of punishment, yet needed to give.

As engineers refined the production process over the years, coming up with new and better weaves(unidirectional, off-weave etc), carbon fiber only became better at its job. It was not only used in high performance applications, it started to become a symbol of high performance itself.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that it also looks badass. Hold a piece in your hand and you'll instantly understand why so many descriptions of the super-composite include the word ‘Batman' somewhere.

"Carbon fiber definitely has this mystique, this aura about it," says Scott Summit, who heads up San Francisco-based industrial design firm SummitID. "Just watching the light dancing on the surfaces, it has a depth that you just can't get from any other material."

Not only is it much different from the boring plastics and metals we interact with on a daily basis, it's almost exclusively affiliated with things that are built to last and are, well, beautiful.

That is until recently.

Carbon Fiber Is the New Leather

While it's hard to pinpoint when, somewhere along the line these affiliations and historical uses joined forces and remade carbon fiber into a sort of brand in and of itself. Marketing departments haven't looked back.

Today, the results are plain to see: Scroll through your RSS feed on any given day and you'll find the material woven through the heart of nearly every high-end, aspirational tchotchke imaginable. There are entire sites dedicated only to carbon fiber gear (the new black!). And what was once simply a gold standard in bicycle frames and motorcycle parts has migrated into money clips, wallets, coasters, and toilet seats. (And yes, some Giz editors even rock carbon fiber iPhone cases.)

Carbon Fiber Is the New Leather

You know you've hit the big time as a material when faux versions of you start to appear. And that's exactly what's happened. As with other popular luxury materials-things like wood and leather-you can now apply veneers, which essentially replicate the look and feel of carbon but are nothing close to the same composite (ahem, most iPhone cases). Of course those companies are still happy to charge you a premium for such gear.

"Unfortuantely, we've reached a point where [carbon fiber's] kind of become a self parody," Summit admits. "At one point, it had very practical and distinct meaning and reputation, but a lot of that original message got lost."

The other unfortunate part of carbon fiber's ascension to the high-end material throne is that while it may help boost your self-esteem and company profit margins, it is definitely not good for the environment. In fact, it's a nightmare. Not only is the composite virtually impossible to recycle, but manufacturing it remains a resource-heavy and polluting process.

For that reason alone, many don't expect the current carbon fiber wackiness to last much longer. Some, like Summit, even say the material's heyday has already passed. "It's certainly going to remain in our palate and design vernacular, but the days of the carbon fiber mouse are numbered," he says. "It's going to be a little bit like the acid wash jeans of the gadget world."

Until then, enjoy those chopsticks.

Carbon fiber coaster image courtesy of Black Badger Advanced Composites.