Cordovan leather is a very unique and somewhat mysterious equine leather. It is prized for it's beauty and strength. It's as hard wearing as it is expensive and hard to find.
Like suede, cordovan is often misunderstood. In this article we'll discuss what Cordovan is, how to care for it, and how to polish it. We'll touch of some essentials and dispel a few myths while we're at it.
Let's dive in.
What Is Cordovan?
Cordovan is a premium leather that comes from horse. It also goes by the name Shell cordovan, or simply shell.
It is accurate to say this is horse leather. That said, it is unique in that it doesn't actually come from the hide. Horse hide is a completely different type of horse leather. This is where people can get confused.
Shell cordovan leather originates from Cordoba, Spain, where it was first produced in the seventh century! It comes from a subcutaneous membrane found in the rump (or butt) of a horse. Subcutaneous refers to anything under the skin. In this case it is a fibrous connective tissue.
This fibrous tissue is what makes shell cordovan so much different from normal vegetable tanned leather. The tissue has an extremely dense structure to it. The fibres are packed much tighter together than normal hides.
Because of how tightly packed the shell leather is, it doesn't crease. Yes, you read that correctly. This is the only leather that doesn't crease. Instead, it develops these characteristic "rolls" or tiny waves in the leather.
No fine creasing. Only some nice wavy rolls. Alden 975 Long Wings in colour #8.
Due to how densely packed shell cordovan is, it makes for a challenging raw material. Dye pigment has trouble penetrating the leather.
This is why you see black shell cordovan, as well as brown, burgundy/oxblood, and navy. I.E. usually a dark shade. While shell can be made into lighter colour it is much harder to do.
Black and burgundy are the most popular for this reason. Alden, very popular for shell, calls their burgundy #8. It is a dark shade of burgundy that borders more on eggplant with almost no red tones.
Like indigo in denim, dye has trouble permanently dying shell. As you wear and brush your cordovan leather shoes they slowly lose colour. That is why older shoes look so faded!
On top of that shell cordovan is an extremely fatty leather with tons of natural oils in it. This makes it very easy to take care of and gives it a unique hand feel. The extremely tight pores and fatty nature make it easy to buff to a high shine. Imagine somewhere between patent leather and calfskin leather.
Cordovan is a very strong leather and can last many years. This makes it great for not only footwear but also wallets, bags, and other leather goods. It truly is some of the finest leather you can find. The main downside is it's expense.
Inside of a 10 year old navy shell card holder. Showcasing the famous Horween stamp. Horween is a prominent American producer known for quality.
From Allen Edmonds to Edward Green, Shell cordovan shoes have become popular. Given their uniqueness and longevity many makers are producing them. Alden has a great selection available at the Shoe Mart, for example.
Dak's and Florsheim Shell shoes can still be found in functioning shape and they were often made in the 50's!
How To Care For Shell
You care for shell in a similar way to how you would calfskin leather. It is a similar shoe care routine with different set of products. You still want to brush, clean, condition, and shine shell. You should still use a shoe horn and shoe trees.
The main shoe care product you need is Saphir Medaille d'Or Cordovan cream. It's specially formulated to give your leather what it needs. It has a high concentration of Neatsfoot Oil to help restore the natural oils that keep your shoes healthy.
This extra oils accounts for the cream's thickness. It also means you can condition and shine your shoes in one step!
The oils and fats in shell make it shine up easily. This makes it harder to notice when your shoes are drying out. Some people online recommend only shining your shoes with a little bit of water.
While well intentioned, that is a bad advice. (This is sometimes referred to as the "Mac" method which was popularized by MacArthur on Styleforum). Shell is still leather and all leather needs hydrating from time to time.
Given how shiny shell already is you usually don't have to use wax polish. If you want a mirror shine on a dress shoe you can use some Mirror Gloss or Pate De Luxe wax shoe polish.
Often shell is used for boots and other more casual application though. Our style is to let the natural beauty of the shell come through.
How To Polish Cordovan Shoes
Step 1: Wipe With Damp Cloth Or Chamois
Begin by inserting your shoe tree.
Wipe any excess dirt or dust off of your cordovan shoe with a damp cloth or chamois.
Remove shoe laces if you don't want to get any cream on them and for easier access to the tongue.
Step 2: Apply Cordovan Cream
Using a soft cloth or spatula brush apply an even coat of cream all over your shoes. We recommend using cream close in colour to your shoes. If you cannot match them we recommend neutral or one shade darker.
Work the cream into the leather in a circular motion.
Step 3: Wait 5 minutes
This small break will allow the leather to soak up the cream.
Step 4: Brush vigorously
Brush your shoes vigorously with a horse hair brush. It is impossible to over brush shell. The more you brush the shinier it will get (to a point).
Back and forth, continue to brush your shoes until they have a beautiful high shine.
Voila, your shell cordovan shoes are now healthy and glowing.
Polished on the left. Notice how the shoe looks more uniform and lustrous.
Two closing notes on shell.
When it comes to storage, you can store your shoes as you would calfskin footwear. In bags with your wooden trees inserted. No special considerations have to be made.
Also on newer shell footwear the fat from the leather can make its way to the surface. This usually leaves a thin white chalky residue on your shoes. Most noticeable after storing them for a while. This is normal. It is called "bloom" and can be removed simply by brushing. No special cleaning required.
You're now equipped with all the info you need to enjoy your cordovan goods. Follow these steps and you'll have them for many years to come.