Shell cordovan is often considered to be one of the finest leathers in the world. Due to its unique properties, shell cordovan has become popular for footwear and leather goods manufacturers around the world.
Shell cordovan is an equine leather which comes from a fibrous flat muscle beneath the rump of the horse (shell). It is characterized by its tight grain structure and smooth feel. While most leathers are utilized and tanned to have the grain side (the side where the hair once was) out, shell cordovan is actually flesh out.
A process which traditionally takes over six months; the shells are processed, tanned, stuffed, shaved and finished to produce the final shell cordovan. Any animal within the equine family will actually have these “shells” (horse, mule, donkey, zebra, etc.) but horse is really the only animal used to create the shell cordovan.
Unlike traditional leather which may crease, shell cordovan tends to "roll" giving it a much different look after significant use. In small leather goods, this rolling is less apparent but the reduction in overall creasing is a huge benefit. Shell cordovan also tends to be incredibly water resistant, long lasting and able to take a beating. It isn't a fluke that you often see shoes made in the 1960s and 1970s made from Shell Cordovan still hanging around secondhand markets.
When someone mentions shell cordovan, Horween Leather Company is usually not far to follow. Horween is the oldest tannery producing shell cordovan. Many other tanneries have followed suit and begun producing shell cordovan to try to capture a percentage of the market share.
The 6 month process from raw, unprocessed hide to finished shell cordovan is anything but simple. Spending some time at the Horween tannery in Chicago allowed me to have a better understanding and appreciation for the time and skilled required to create this fantastic leather. There is certainly a reason that not every tannery attempts to replicate Horween’s original process.
The process starts when the horsehides are brought into the lower level of the tannery on pallets in a raw, cured state. Hides are then inspected and any unwanted areas trimmed. Though the hides themselves have been salted to prevent decay and deterioration, they still have an… organic smell to them.
The full horsehides are then loaded into mixers to remove any hair on the hides. The hides then undergo a process to remove any remaining flesh left on the hides.
The horsehides are then cut into two separate pieces where they will continue on to their own separate tanning processes. The double horse front and the horse butt. The horse fronts can be tanned and turned into any of Horween’s tannages (Chromexcel, Latigo, etc.) and the horse butts end up being cut into horse strips and the shell cordovan.
Once the hide is separated into the two pieces, the horse butts, which will soon become the shell cordovan, are then tanned in the vegetable tanning pits for 60 days.
The horse butts are removed from the tanning pits and then shaved to further expose the fibrous flat muscle area. The horse strip (also known as “North of Cordovan”) is then trimmed off of the horse butt which can then be tanned in a separate process.
Once out of the pits, the shell cordovan receives its first application of the special blend of greases and oils. The shells then take up to a week to dry depending on the overall temperature and humidity within the tannery.
Once fully dried, the shell is hand oiled and curried and then sits in stacks for 90 days to age the leather, which provides the smooth shell surface.
The aniline dye is applied by hand to color the shell cordovan while still leaving some of its natural characteristics visible.
After hand applying the dye, the shells are then glazed with an old fashioned glazing jack which quickly rubs a glass rod back and forth on the hide to give it a polished look. Alternately, this step can be skipped for an “unglazed” look which leaves the shell with more of a matte look versus glossy.
The shells are then graded by area that is considered “cuttable”. The grade applied to a particular shell is not indicative of the quality, but rather the size.
Grade #1: 2.75 square feet
Grade X: 2.25 square feet
Grade #2: 1.75 square feet
Grade #3: 1.5 square feet
Grade #4: 1.25 square feet
Grade #5: 1 square foot
Chips: 1 square foot and under
People often ask how Horween came up with their famous name Color #8. Color #8 is actually the original color number from their dye supplier which they have been using for a long time. This dye is the base for many of their other “numbered colors” but in different concentrations.
The popular and rare Color #4 is the same dye as Color #8 but in half the concentration. Similarly, their old Color #2 would be ¼ the concentration of the Color #8 dye.
An estimated 90% of what Horween produces for shell cordovan is Color #8 and Black. The remaining 10% are other colors.
Ravello and Cigar are Horween's only "exclusive" shell cordovan colors. These belong to Alden - their largest consumer of their shell cordovan.
The horsehides that Horween receives to produce shell cordovan are a byproduct of the meat industry in countries that eat horse. Horween purchases as much horsehide as is available to them. There is only so much you can do when you’re relying heavily on a byproduct of another industry.