Is Shell Cordovan Leather?

Shell Cordovan: one of the most long-lasting (and expensive) materials used to make shoes and boots. Known for its uncommon durability, water resistance, high shine, and incredible resistance to creasing; it’s so different to all other forms of leather that it’s understandable you wouldn’t even put Cordovan in that category.

However, the fact is Shell Cordovan comes from a horse. And it’s tanned over a long period of time to produce material for shoes and belts.

Despite this, many Shell Cordovan collectors and enthusiasts still claim that Shell Cordovan cannot be considered “leather”. We’ll explain why below, and we’ll discuss what leather is, and what makes Shell Cordovan “leather”.

Shell Cordovan Florsheim 93605
Cordovan on some vintage Florsheim shoes

[Related: The 7 Best Cordovan Boots on Earth]

What Is Leather, Really?

Let’s start with the most basic of definitions:

a material made from the skin or hide of an animal by tanning or a similar process.

Fantastic! Shell Cordovan passes that first check. It is indeed a material that comes from an animal, specifically the hindquarters of a horse before undergoing a nearly 6-month tanning process.

But let’s dive a little deeper into that. Let’s take a look at the different layers of skin to better understand what makes different types of leather.

layers of leather

As we can see, the grain (or epidermis) and flesh are sandwiching a material called Corium. The Corium consists mainly of a dense network of connective tissue fibers. This dense network of tissue fibers is what gives skin elasticity, while the epidermis (or grain) is what provides the protective surface of the skin.

For cowhide, you’ll find full and top grain leather tanned using the epidermis – while suede is tanned using the Corium.

Now, here is an illustration drawn by Ralph Horween in 1961.

horween cordovan diagram
Illustration courtesy of Ashland Leather

Following this diagram, Shell Cordovan appears to reside between the grain and flesh; the layer where you would typically find Corium.

It stands to reason that Shell Cordovan is indeed Corium, albeit a much more dense variety of Corium. Why do we only find these Shells in the hindquarters of a horse (or any equine animal) though? It is difficult to say.

I’d theorize it relates to their powerful back legs. Horse kicks are known to kill people, and Zebras are known to have the strongest kick in the world. It is possible that these “Shells” in the hindquarters are necessary in order to provide the elasticity needed to deliver such swift and powerful kicks. This could explain why the Corium is especially dense in this region of the animal.

[Related: The Famous Cordovan Wallet, the ‘Fat Herbie’]

shell cordovan alden indys
A shell Cordovan version of the famous Alden Indy

Why Do People Think Cordovan Isn’t Leather?

Now that we have defined leather and reviewed the similarities between Calf and Cordovan, it is rather apparent that Shell Cordovan is indeed leather.

So why do some collectors and enthusiast claim that it isn’t leather? One may assume it is from a lack of knowledge on the subject, or perhaps a desire to further increase the mystique of such an expensive leather.

Frankly, I have never heard any factual or specific arguments (if you know of any, please comment below).

Leather is to Shell Cordovan, as sparkling wine is to Champagne. That is to say: all Shell Cordovan is leather, but not all leather is Shell Cordovan.

Shell Cordovan is simply the King of Leathers, and there’s no shame in being the King.

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Menswear professional with a passion for quality. I sell vintage US-made footwear on Ebay. Please check out my eBay shop and Instagram and feel free to contact me at [email protected] for inquiries and collaborations. Thank you!

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