What is Shell Cordovan?

Many of you will have heard about Cordovan leather and might even own Cordovan watch straps or are thinking of buying their first pair. In this article we want to explain to you everything about Cordovan leather, where it comes from, how it is made and how to properly take care of it.

Cordovan leather is essentially horse leather, but not every leather that comes from a horse is Cordovan. Only the so called shells or butts, which are the rear quarters of the horse are turned into Cordovan, hence the often used name Shell Cordovan. These parts of the animal are used because of the very dense fibre structure that allows for the characteristic durability and strength of cordovan leather. This also explains why Cordovan is so precious and comes with a hefty price tag. From a relatively big animal you can only produce a small piece of shell cordovan.


How is it made?

The production process of Cordovan differs in many ways from that of normal smooth leather like for example calf or kid. The production time is with around 6 months quite long and involves many labour-intense steps where a lot of handwork is involved.

The skins are even tanned in tanning pits, something that you would usually find in the making process of sole leather, the leather normally is tanned in spinning drums. Shell Cordovan is a vegetable tanned leather that is treated with oils during the tanning process, this creates the unique feel that cordovan has. It has the touch of vegetable-tanned leather that is slightly “spongy” and not as stiff as chrome-tanned leather but also has an oily touch because of its high oil content.

These two steps in the tanning process create the unique feel of Cordovan, yet the unique look is created by something that might surprise you. Unlike with most leathers, what you see when you look at the smooth and shiny surface of Cordovan is not the grain side of the skin but actually the flesh side which has been finished and polished so intensely that the fibre structure has become as smooth as the grain side. 

In a process where the skin is glazed with a large steel wheel the fibers are so compressed that the surface becomes smooth and is then finished with waxes. The most famous tannery for Cordovan leather is Horween based in the USA but you can also find great Cordovan leather from the Japanese tanneries Ogawa and Shinki Hikaku or from Italy. We only use the Horween Shell Cordovan leather in our products.



Why is shell cordovan expensive?

The high price of Cordovan comes down to the low supply of hides, the high demand for them, and the long, complicated tanning process. Since horses are only raised as part of the food chain in a few places in the world, the supply of horsehides is small and unlikely to grow, contributing directly to the scarcity and high price of this type of leather. Only a small portion of the horsehide can be used and it can’t be split into layers like cow leather. Tanning alone takes 6 months and a great deal of handwork; very few tanners have the knowledge to tan it.

Shell cordovan is a truly rare and unique material. The cost is warranted considering the factors surrounding its production.




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