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  • November 20, 2017 5 min read

    Mention shell cordovan leather around a shoe enthusiast - such as myself - and you will find an emphatic listener. It is difficult and expensive to make and constantly in high demand. Its leather is used mainly in higher-end shoe making and is known for its unique non-creasing characteristics. Its distinctive patina is a discrete signal of style, affluence and next level shoe game. In this blog post we introduce you to shell cordovan and explain what all the fuss is about.

     What is shell cordovan?

    Shell cordovan leather is from the fibrous flat muscle (or shell) beneath the hide of a horse’s equine posterior – a delicate way of saying ‘horse's bum’. The most nonporous leather known to man, it is a very good choice for shoe uppers, as the leather is highly durable, tough but elastic and virtually water-proof. It moulds to the foot better than calf leather and develops a distinctive patina over time. 

    Image @ Ashland

    What I love about shell cordovan shoes is how resistant they are to creasing. They don't crease, they ripple. Creases occur when the outer/grain of the leather travels at a slightly different distance to the inner/flesh portion of the leather when the vamp of the shoe is flexed. If the grain does not keep up with the flesh portion, the grain is eventually forced outwards and this is the visual break (or cease) you see. With shell, because the fibre of the leather is so tightly packed and has no grain structure, the leather does not crease. 

    How is shell cordovan leather made?

    There are about a dozen tanneries around the world that produces genuine shell cordovan. A measured pace and patience is required to produce shell cordovan. One horse hide (two shells) will make one pair of shoes. The process involves no volume production techniques or high-tech manufacturing technologies. The shells go through a natural vegetable tanning process that can take up to six months. In this period, the shell is hand-stained. Because cordovan does not take colour as good as other leathers, it is stained in a limited variety of finishes. The quality of the stain, or how even the colour is, can vary from tannery to tannery. 

    Video @Allen Edmonds via YouTube

    The most well-known, and widely regarded, producer of shell cordovan is Horween Leathers Co. from Chicago, US. Top shoemakers, such as Alden, Carmina, Allen and Edmonds, Crocket & Jones and Alfred Sergeant source their cordovan from Horween. Their shell is constantly sought after and priced as such.  Several smaller tanneries exist, notably from Japan and Italy, who produce quality shell. Differences in the finishing product obviously occur. For instance, shell produced by Italian tannery Compiel (used by shoe brand Trickers), is slightly thinner than Horween shell. On the other hand, shell produced by Japanese tannery Shinki-Hikaku Co., has a more transparent and natural finish but is a thicker than their Italian and American counterparts. 

    Supply and demand of shell cordovan?

    Men used to work their way up to Shell. According to Alden's CEO Robert Clarke, cordovan wasn’t a material that men traditionally discovered until later in their careers, but the internet and China’s parchment for luxury goods has changed all of that. Savvy young consumers, as impatient as they are, will gladly suffer long 'made-to-order' waiting lists. New Chinese money, eager to display their affluence and status, compete for cordovan products in all forms.  On the supply-side of things, tanneries have often struggled to keep up with demand, and - interestingly - a reduction of horse meat in French cooking has meant less horse hides make their way to the tanneries. 

    Alden's Indy Boot w Commando Color 8 Shell Cordovan - My Wishlist

    Cost of shell cordovan shoes?

    Shell cordovan shoes aren't cheap, but it's still possible to find a very reasonably priced pair. Shoes, whose shell comes from Horween, will be sold anywhere between $700 to $1,200 USD  (brand, style and location depending). At Alden, probably the best known shoemaker of Horween shell, a pair of brogues (wing tips) will set you back around $765 USD ($1,100 AUD). Over the ditch, a comparable pair from Crockett & Jones will cost you £610 GBP. (1065 AUD). Alden's CEO wasn't joking when he said it is a leather men used to work up to. 

    Meermin's 101375 Burgandy Shell Cordovan Wingtips 

    But for the first-timer or the frugal enthusiast, you can still keep your first unborn child. Meermin, who make high quality men's shoes at often less than half the price of their competitors, produce an Italian shell cordovan brogue for as little as $350 USD ($460 AUD). And from all accounts, their shell cordovan shoes stack up. This is a shoemaker for any chap looking to break into the shell cordovan shoe market (or any goodyear welted shoe for that matter). Given the positive reviews their shell shoes have received, I've recently put my name down for a pair. 

    Shell Cordovan Shoe Care?

    Shell cordovan is a hardy and lustrous leather that can resist water and does not crease. It is generally easier to care for than calfskin leather but requires slightly different tools and method. Below are a few points about caring for shell cordovan shoes:

    • You might notice some white, waxy residue on the leather initially, which is the excess oils and tanning liquids (from the tanning process) and is perfectly normal.
    •  Shell cordovan requires specialised shoe cream, such as the Boot Black Cordovan Shoe Cream. To note, saturating the leather with product will likely dull the patina.
    • Shell requires less nourishment (and little application) than other leather shoes. 
    • Shell cordovan ripples instead of creases. A deer bone can be used to smooth out the leather. Its natural oils also provide nourishment. This is optional. (good old shoe trees seem to work well for me).

    Where to find shell cordovan shoes in Australia?

    Demand for shell cordovan is high.. outside of Australia. In a recent trip to New York, I stopped by a shoe shine shop near Wall Street, and in five seats sat five gents, all wearing cordovan leather shoes. In Australia, it's a bit like sighting the Tasmanian Tiger. But if you're wanting to look, touch and try on shell cordovan shoes in Australia, I would look no further than Double Monk, based Melbourne and Sydney. 

    Further Reading

    Boyer, B., 2017, Cordovan Leather, Ben Silver Charlston

    Chensvold, C., 2016, Shell Shock: The Growing Demand for the Horse Leather Known as Cordovan. Apparel Mag. 

    Kastning, T. J., 2013, All About Shell Cordovan – An Interview With Horween Leather Co. Best Leather.

    Moorby, C. D., 2012, A Cordovan Novice's Guide To Cordovan. Stitch and Stitched. 

    Schneider, S.R., 2016, Cordovan Leather from Horween. Gentleman's Gazette.

    Shoegazing, 2016, Report – The Italian tannery Shell Cordovan.

    Want, J., 2013, 11 Quality Men's Shoe Brands You Need To Know. The Versatile Gent.