Shell cordovan may sound like an exotic aquatic animal, but it is actually a type of leather that is highly prized by shoe aficionados. Known for its durability, luster, and unique texture, shell cordovan has a long and fascinating history that dates back hundreds of years.
Origins of Shell Cordovan
Shell cordovan is made from the hindquarters of a horse, specifically the shell of the equine’s rump. This leather is unique in that it contains no grain, which means it does not have visible pores or follicles. Instead, the leather has a smooth, shiny surface that can be polished to a brilliant shine.
The process of making shell cordovan is time-consuming and requires great skill. The first step in the process is to remove the hair from the horsehide, followed by tanning and dyeing the leather. After the leather has been dyed, it is stuffed with a special blend of oils and waxes, which gives it its characteristic shininess. The leather is then hand-polished to bring out its luster.
The origins of shell cordovan can be traced back to the ancient art of leather tanning, which dates back to at least 5000 BC. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were all known for their skill in tanning leather, and would have been familiar with the process of creating shell cordovan.
However,the first historical documentation states that it was first produced by the Visigoths in the seventh century, at the city of Cordoba, Spain and later also by the Moors. That is why this particular leather is known as Cordovan.
Cordovan leather was highly prized for its durability and toughness, and was used to make everything from horse saddles to military equipment. However, it was the Italians who first recognized the potential of cordovan leather as a material for shoes.
In the early 20th century, Italian shoe manufacturers began using shell cordovan to create high-end shoes for men. These shoes were typically plain in design, with a simple vamp and toe cap, and were highly sought after by the fashionable elite.
The Rise of Shell Cordovan Shoes
In the mid-20th century, the popularity of shell cordovan shoes began to wane. This was due in part to the rise of synthetic materials, which offered a cheap and convenient alternative to leather.
However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in high-quality, handcrafted shoes, and shell cordovan has once again become a popular material for footwear.
Today, shell cordovan shoes are highly prized by collectors and enthusiasts for their durability, unique texture, and classic aesthetic. They are often handmade by skilled artisans, and can cost several hundred dollars or more per pair.
One of the reasons shell cordovan shoes are so highly valued is their durability. Unlike other types of leather, which can become scuffed and worn over time, shell cordovan is known for its ability to resist wear and tear. This makes it an ideal material for footwear, as it can withstand the rigors of daily wear.
Another advantage of shell cordovan shoes is their unique texture. Because the leather contains no grain, it has a smooth, shiny surface that is unlike any other type of leather. This gives shell cordovan shoes a distinctive look that sets them apart from other types of footwear.
Shell cordovan shoes are also prized for their classic aesthetic. Because they are often handmade using traditional techniques, they have a timeless quality that other types of footwear cannot match. This makes them an investment piece that can be worn for years, if not decades, without ever going out of style.
How to Care for Shell Cordovan Shoes
If you own a pair of shell cordovan shoes, it is important to take good care of them in order to keep them looking their best. Here are a few tips for caring for your shell cordovan shoes:
1. Clean them regularly. Use a soft cloth or brush to remove any dirt or dust from your shoes.
2. Condition the leather
. Apply a small amount of leather conditioner to your shoes to keep them soft and supple. Our Leather conditioner
is formulated to nourish leather from within
3. Use a shoe shine
. Use a high-quality shoe shine to give your shoes a brilliant luster. I recommend using our Shoe wax polish
or Saphir Cordovan polish
4. Store them properly. When you’re not wearing your shoes, store them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
5. Use shoe trees in your shoes. To keep your shoes in good shape, store them with a shoe tree. We offer bespoke shoe trees to match your bespoke shape.
The missing link: Spanish Shell Cordovan
There were currently only 3 tanneries in the world that still produce shell cordovan from raw hide to finish: Horween from the USA, Maryam from Italy and Shinki Haiku in Japan.There are another 4 tanneries that produce shell cordovan from already tanned culatta or horse butt, like Cloe, in Italy.
After many years of research, I discovered how to create the shell by hand in my workshop, by removing the epidermis and polishing the dermis in the specific part of the rump of the horse. When I went to Spain last April '23, I showed a 5th generation tannery run by three brothers and their sons how I had achieved it and in 15 minutes they achieved shell cordovan with the same quality as Horween, a magical moment!
I also found another tannery run by a 34 year old man, who completes the whole process on his own and tans about a 100 skins a week. He makes artistic marble shell cordovan.
So, one of the highlights of the trip was not only to find one missing link in the chain but two and now the world has got 5 tanneries making shell cordovan. You may know this, but the term for shoemaker in English was ‘cordwainer’ which means ‘the one who use cordovan’ and cordovan means ‘leather from Cordoba, Spain’. The missing link: I completed the circle back to the source.
Gaucho Ninja will now source, use for its footwear and accessories and distribute the Spanish shell cordovan from the UK. By doing this, it will allow these families of traditional tanneries to claim back a place of recognition in historical artisan leather tanning heritage.
Shell cordovan is a unique and highly valued material for shoes that has a long and fascinating history. From its origins in ancient tanning techniques to its rise as a popular material for high-end Italian shoes, shell cordovan has endured as a classic and durable material for footwear. Today, shell cordovan shoes are prized by collectors and enthusiasts for their unique texture, durability, and classic aesthetic. By taking good care of your shell cordovan shoes, you can ensure that they will last for years to come.