Genuine shell cordovan is rare. Most leathers come from cows, but cordovan comes from horses (which are not, by the way, raised for this purpose). The “shell”, and let me put this as delicately as possible, is the subcutaneous layer that covers the equine posterior. Each horse provides two shells, which is just enough for a pair of shoes. A single shell isn’t long enough to form a seamless belt, so genuine shell cordovan belts will always be pieced. The most non-porous leather known, shell cordovan is distinguished by its lustrous waxy finish, superior durability, and suppleness that readily conforms to the shape of the wearer’s foot.
Cordovan is a corruption of Cordoba, the city in southern Spain where the technique of tanning this leather originated. Even today high volume production and fancy technology are powerless in its manufacture. Old school handwork is what gets the job done. The shells are put through a natural, vegetable tanning process, then hand-stained, glazed, and finished over a six-month period that demands the measured pace of craftsmanship and patience.
It’s those things that account for the expensiveness of true shell cordovan leather. Added to which there’s only one tannery which still produces cordovan leather, Horween Leathers in Chicago. Coincidentally, Horween’s other claim to fame is providing the leather for NFL footballs and professional baseball gloves. Genuine shell cordovan is a leather with character. It’s known for taking on a rich patina that improves with wear and polishing. And tough as, well, a horse’s butt.
-G. Bruce Boyer