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Shell Cordovan – What Makes It Special and When To Use It

Sometimes I get requests for special items, something to look beautiful and last for years and years. Shell Cordovan comes to mind often as a choice for a smooth, durable, beautiful leather. Here is what I’ve learned about it.

Shell Cordovan is a type of leather that comes from the rump of a horse. It is made up of fibrous tissue comprised of collagen and elastin, this gives it a tight, dense, smooth characteristic. It is most often used in personal accessories and dress shoes. Cordovan is generally less common and more expensive than other leathers.

If you’re considering using this type of leather for a project, which can be incredible, there’s a few helpful things to know about when and how to use it. Let’s explore more.

What Is Shell Cordovan Leather?

Shell Cordovan comes from horses.  This type of leather is comprised of fibrous tissue made up of collagen and elastin located directly under the hide on the rump of the horse.  It is known for being used on high end dress footwear. It is vegetable tanned with added oils, giving it a stiffer hand than chrome tanned leather. 

The tanning process for cordovan leather takes up to 6 months and dozens of steps in the process.  Some tanneries do introduce chrome tanning as part of their tanning process.  Vegetable tanned allows more moldability, where chrome has more resistance to heat.  Shell Cordovan normally ranges between 1 and 3 mm in thickness.

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Horse

The Characteristics of Shell Cordovan Leather

Shell Cordovan is known for its ability to not crease, always having a smooth appearance.  This is best typified in higher end and military dress shoes; having a high shine to it. When cared for properly, Cordovan leather can last more than a lifetime. Although most folks associate cordovan with footwear, it is also used for expensive wallets and watch straps.

Shell Cordovan leather is limited to two small ovals on the rear of the horse, sandwiched between the flesh and the hide.  Since it is not the actual hide, as it goes through the rigorous tanning and dyeing process, the finish is very smooth.  Typical equine or cowhide will have a pebbly or grainy appearance and feel.  Cordovan leather first cuts have little to any imperfections in the surface, making it a great choice for high end leather crafters around the world.

Shell Cordovan comes from horses.  This type of leather is comprised of fibrous tissue made up of collagen and elastin located directly under the hide on the rump of the horse.

Popular Uses for Shell Cordovan Leather

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A leather like this is most often used for smaller, special items. Since this type of leather comes from a relatively small part of the horse (in comparison to larger cow hides from a larger area of the animal), it is commonly found in personal accessories and bespoke items. Let’s explore some of the more popular uses.

Shell Cordovan Wallets

As with any vegetable tanned leather, one can make multiple styles and sizes of wallets using Shell Cordovan leather.  As with most leathers, it is available in multiple thicknesses and colors.  Cordovan leather wallets can be laser etched, stamped, or carved similar to other leathers used for making wallets.  Although it is not typical hide, it accepts punched holes for stitching purposes; whether machine or hand stitched.

Shell Cordovan Shoes 

Shell Cordovan shoes are business professional.  They have a high luster to them and are available in multiple shades and colors.  Cordovan shoes, with proper care will, last years.  Typical owners will replace the soles multiple times before wearing out the leather.

Shell Cordovan leather footwear - Shell Cordovan - Liberty Leather Goods
Shell Cordovan leather footwear

Shell Cordovan Boots

Shell Cordovan boots are business professional.  They have a high luster to them and are available in multiple shades and colors.  Cordovan boots, with proper care, will last years.  Typical owners will replace the soles multiple times before wearing out the leather.

Shell Cordovan Watch Straps

Shell Cordovan watch straps are superior straps due to their non-creasing and high luster characteristics.  Even after years of use, they appear to be brand new with a quick polish.  In addition to years of service, they will also age gracefully with a patina. Most Shell Cordovan watch straps are produced using a single layer of leather. 

Although they may be stitched, it is for aesthetics rather than function.  Many of the watch straps are made in typical fashion with a buckle on one strap and the receiving piece having holes for adjustments.  Others have a quick release mechanism to minimize any wear and tear at the hole location.

Leatherworking with Shell Cordovan

Shell Cordovan can be cut and sewn just like any leather. Cordovan can be either glazed or un-glazed, dyed or natural.  Glazed cordovan has a top coating over the surface.  When working with un-glazed, dyed cordovan, it is likely to transfer the dye to other surfaces.  Due to the tanning process, avoid heat and steam which can allow premature wear..  It can be wet to mold and shape, just ensure it dries thoroughly.

Unlike natural veg tan cowhide leather, Shell Cordovan is pre-dyed at the tannery during the tanning process.  Each hide has its own unique color.  Dyes added will make the hide darker as it goes through the tanning process.  Lighter color Shell Cordovan are more difficult to source.  You are also limited in the thickness of Shell Cordovan to between 3 and 8 ounce leather (1.2 – 3.2 mm). 

As with veg tan cowhide leather, it can be cased and stamped or carved with different designs and patterns.  It doesn’t have much stretch, but when stamping, ensure you mask the back side of the piece to prevent it from migrating due to the stamping process.

This insightful video shows the finishing process of Shell Cordovan:

Where to Buy Shell Cordovan Leather

There are very few tanneries that produce Shell Cordovan.  It is produced in Chicago, IL, USA, Kobe, Japan, Argentina, and France, to name a few. Here is a table with the most popular sources:

CompanyWhat They SellWebsite
RM Leather Supply Japanese produced Shell Cordovan.  It is produced by Shinki Hikaku, which has been in business since 1951. https://www.rmleathersupply.com/
The Tannery row USA made Shell Cordovan. Produced by the Horween Leather Company since 1905. https://www.thetanneryrow.com/
Springfield Leather Company Shell Cordovan produced in Argentina. Lis Royal S.A. is located in Hurlingham, Buenos Aires, Argentina. https://www.springfieldleather.com/

Helpful Insights

Why Is Shell Cordovan So Expensive?

Most leather hides have 20-25 square feet of leather.  Shell cordovan is just the rear portion of the leather.  There is only 1-2 square feet of Shell Cordovan leather per hide.  In addition, it is sourced from select horses rather than all horses.  The supply is very limited.  Even the USA based tannery uses equine hides from France rather than horses used for byproducts located in the United States.

Shell Cordovan leather is sourced from select horses rather than all horses.  The supply is very limited.

Are Horses Killed for Shell Cordovan?

As in the traditional cattle leather industry, the equine animals are put down and the process of harvesting the entire animal takes place.  Animals are not just killed for their hides.  The remaining parts, including the bone and meat are utilized in other products.

Is Shell Cordovan the Best Leather?

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Shell Cordovan is highly sought after for producing higher end shoes, boots, wallets, and watch straps. For those products, there is none better.  Rarely do you see other products made using this leather due to its cost in the marketplace.  Due to limited availability and price, most leatherworkers will choose Bison or Bovine leather as an alternative.

Is Shell Cordovan Better Than Calfskin?

The characteristics of Shell Cordovan lend themselves nicely to holding up for long periods of time.  When cared for properly, it won’t crack, fade, crease, and will patina nicely.  Over time calfskin will become stretched and wrinkle due to its soft, supple nature.  For shoes, wallets, boots, Shell Cordovan is superior to calfskin.

Check out the helpful video below for a side by side comparison of Calfskin vs Cordovan shoes

Does Shell Cordovan Crack?

Shell Cordovan will not crack when properly treated.  Avoid long exposures to repeat cycles of wet and dry conditions along with extreme heat and steam without proper treatment with conditioners, typically containing neatsfoot oil and beeswax.

Can You Wear Shell Cordovan in the Rain?

One is able to wear items made from Shell Cordovan in wet conditions, including rain.  The Cordovan Shell items must be properly treated with waxes or conditioners to protect them from the elements.  Applying too much wax will actually dull the luster, therefore less is more.

How Long Do Shell Cordovan Shoes Last?

Shell Cordovan shoes will last more than a lifetime, if properly treated.  Proper treatment includes keeping them clean, polished, waxed, and using a shoe tree when not being worn.  Cobblers are becoming rare, but they will be able to replace the soles of the shoes multiple times long before the leather wears out.

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