We are pleased to announce that the wait is over! Our regular stock of Grade 1 Shell Cordovan has arrived. Enjoy a selection of high-quality, individually listed Grade 1 shell cordovan in three colors: black, brown, and warm burgundy. Tanned in Argentina, this is some of the best horse leather you'll find. These shell cordovan pieces will be regularly stocked, so we will be actively updating listings as often as possible. View all of our shell cordovan listings by clicking the link below or keep scrolling to find out what makes shell cordovan superior.
The Story Behind Shell Cordovan
Handsome, luxurious, refined—these may not be the qualities that you think would describe horse butt, but shell cordovan is just that and a renowned specialty leather. Maybe you’ve heard of shell cordovan before and were shell-shocked by the high dollar sign. What’s so special about it, anyways?
Well, shell cordovan comes from a particular muscle membrane under the skin of a horse’s behind. Every horse might have as many as two of these “shells,” which are an irregular oval shape and often around 1 to 2 square feet. However, it depends on the horse’s age and if the membrane has been fully developed yet. This area of the horse is very dense, which contributes to its desirable leather qualities and also takes a long time to properly tan.
Traditionally, shell cordovan takes at least six months to tan, and much of it is done by hand. This age-old process is not easily replicated! So, how is it done? Well, the hides—which are a by-product of the horse meat industry in Canada and Europe—come into the tannery preserved in salt. The bottom is separated from the rest of the hide, and unwanted areas are trimmed off. The pieces are cleaned and de-haired. Then, more parts are cut off to isolate the shell.
The shells are vegetable-tanned in large pits. They experience a slow tanning process, because they’re so dense; otherwise, the vegetable liquors would not fully penetrate the shell. Once they have been sufficiently steeped in these liquors, the shells are hot stuffed with a special blend of greases and oils that are pounded uniformly into the leather. Then, the shells are hung up in frames to dry. Once dry, each shell is hand oiled and curried to create the distinct, smooth surface. These sit in stacks for over a month. Aniline dyes are then rubbed into the leather by hand. Finally, the shells are glazed, topping off the smooth and colored surface with a rich, glossy look.
This elaborate process, along with the original qualities of the shells, is what creates the renowned characteristics of shell cordovan. The unique non-creasing quality of this leather makes it a favorite of shoe-makers and other crafters who want a product with smooth edges and curves; unlike calf skin, which will wrinkle with wear, shell cordovan rolls and does not produce any creases. This leather also ages beautifully; with veg tan and other leathers, there’s a grain layer that will separate from the fiber layer of the skin over time, producing a pebbly effect. Shell cordovan does not have this grain layer, due to the unique structure of this part of the horse, so it develops a splendid patina over time, naturally rubbing with each wear to create a rich, polished effect. The distinct density of shell makes it durable, and it has a brilliant natural luster, which is easily maintained with buffing and polishing.
Shell cordovan is water repellent, as well, due to its non-porous qualities. When you consider the arduous, heirloom tanning, limited supply quantity, and rare qualities packed into this little bit of leather, it’s easy to see how a pair of shoes may cost over $600 (and last a lifetime)!