Even if you’re not a leather aficionado, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of shell cordovan. And if you have, there’s also a good chance you’ve wondered, “Why is this type of leather so darn expensive?”
Named in part for the city of Cordoba, Spain where it was first produced in the seventh century by the Visigoths and was known as cordoban, shell cordovan is becoming an increasingly coveted commodity, particularly in the realm of men’s fashion. Though it’s also used to craft wallets and watch bands, cordovan is predominantly sourced to craft high end dress shoes. And by high-end, I mean high-end. The raw material clocks in around $100 per square foot and Viberg’s classic service boot in shell cordovan will run you upwards of a thousand dollars. Granted, they are an incredibly good-looking pair of boots, but are they really worth the ticket price? Let’s take a closer look.
What Makes Cordovan So Different?
Not only is shell cordovan an indisputably good-looking leather, it’s one that only gets better-looking with time. Shell cordovan is a self polishing material, which means that you don’t have to do much at all for it to develop a beautiful sheen, allowing its already impressive appearance take on an all new luster.
Did I mention it’s remarkably durable? Well it is. Not only does it look great, but shell cordovan doesn’t crack the way basically every other leather does. That’s because over time it ripples rather than creases, and creases are what lead to cracks. It sounds strange, but the ripples are subtle, and really add to the beauty of the patina. Provided the soles are changed out periodically, a pair of shell cordovan shoes can last more or less indefinitely. Also, it’s waterproof. Just as an added bonus.
Granted, there are plenty of finely crafted, high end materials out there that don’t cost a month’s rent. So what makes cordovan any different? It goes straight to the source…
[Too pricy? See these 11 ways to save money on boots!]
Where Cordovan Really Comes From
To start, shell cordovan is made from horse hide, specifically the flat muscle (or shell, hence the name) from the rump of the horse. You read that right: this leather is made from horse ass.
Each hide yields two ovals of genuine, quality material, which isn’t very much to begin with. And, as most of the world no longer raises horses as part of the food industry, tanneries are immediately stricken with severe limitations upon the number of suitable hides available.
And merely procuring the necessary hides isn’t even the half of it. Processing the raw material into quality leather is a whole other beast. At Horween, the tanning process takes a minimum of six months; hides are vegetable-tanned for at least 60 days, then hot-stuffed and hand-cured, shaved, and dyed by skilled artisans. The time, money and skill needed for such a process help make for a spectacularly narrow playing field. Due to the length and complexity of the process, only a few tanneries on the planet bother to produce cordovan these days. Basically, you’ve got Horween in Chicago, Shinki in Japan, and a handful of much smaller tanneries in Italy and the UK.
So there you have it: short supply; high demand. Cue cash register sound effects.
Why Horween Is Still the King of Cordovan
Chicago’s Horween Leather is the world’s number one producer of shell cordovan today, as well as the only one in all of North America. And they’ve had a lot of practice. The company has been making shell cordovan since 1905 — in fact, it was Horween’s original product, and today, they use the exact same process, though they remain tight-lipped about the details.
One of the Horween specialties is hot-stuffing, where a proprietary blend of greases, waxes, and oils are pounded into the leather in giant, steam-heated wooden drums. Hot-stuffing is the part of the retanning process responsible for the tactile qualities we love (the look, smell, and feel) and has the added bonus of keeping the leather from drying out for a long, long time, even if completely neglected. Those shell cordovan Viberg Service boots I mentioned earlier? Made with Horween shell cordovan, and usually sold out while still in preorder despite their $1200+ price tag.
[Read my interview with Horween Leather Company here!]
Shell Cordovan: Worth the Sticker Shock?
Even for the world of mens boots, shelling out for shell cordovan can feel like a crazy stretch. And yet, when asking the question “is it worth the price?” the answer is, unequivocally, yes! It’s no exaggeration to say that they’ll last you a lifetime — so if you’re looking to buy one pair of high-quality shoes for literally the rest of your life, look no further than shell cordovan.