Recently, we provided some insights to the Chicago based leather tannery Horween.
Although roughly 80% of their business stems from tanning cowhides, they are probably most famous for their genuine Shell Cordovan leather. Today, I want to share a little bit about the history of Cordovan leather, the color as well as the tanning process.
Originally, Cordovan leather received its name from the city of Cordoba in Spain. As early as in the 16th and 17th century, skilled cordwainers (craftsman who specialize in working with Cordovan) would create preciously decorated horse leathergoods such as wall hangings, trunks, shields and armor. Even today, you can find artisans such as Meryan in Cordoba who still maintain the tradition of Cordovan leather (sometimes also referred to as Cordoban). Because of its qualities, beauty and durability, it found its way to Spanish Royalty, who facilitated the spread of cordovan leather throughout Europe and the world through marriage with other royal families.
Since the mid 19th century, the term Cordovan has been generally applied to leather made from the shell of horse butts. Unlike other leather, the shell is a membrane in the middle of two epidermis layers in the rear portion of a horse butt. It begins about 24″ from the tail and extends about 24″ to 28″ on each side. The exact size depends on the particular horse.
In the late 19th century, German tanners had mastered the art of tanning shell cordovan butts. The product was sold as “Spiegelware”, which literally translates to “mirror goods.” The name is a reference to the fact that polished cordovan achieves a mirror-like finish. Unlike other leathers, its pores are not visible to the naked eye. Nevertheless, the leather was still rather firm or stout and hence not ideally suited for the shoe production.
Around the same time, expat German and Dutch tanners imported the skill of cordovan tanning to the US. In the early 20th century, American tanners further improved the tanning techniques to make it softer and more appropriate for shoes.
Interestingly, Horween initially used shell cordovan for the production of razor strops. However, with the invention of the disposable razor, they had to transition to shoe leather.
The tanning of cordovan takes about six months and more than a hundred processes and therefore, very few tanneries remain in the world that can still produce this kind of leather. By far the most well known one is Horween, and during my visit at the tannery I learned how Cordovan is made.
It starts out with salted horse hides, which are sourced from France, despite the common belief that Horween leather is an entirely American product. For more on the subject, read our article about Made in the USA.
The skins are salted to prevent them from rotting, but they still have a distinctive smell. The horsehides arrive on pallets and are then cut by hand. The process is done in the basement and during my visit in January, it was warm and full of flies. I can only imagine how it must be during the summer.
In order to remove the hair, they undergo some chemical treatments described in the tanning process. Unlike the chromexcel leather, it is then tanned in pits. These are filled with a specific tanning “solutions”. I was surprised to hear that Horween actually makes their own tanning solution, which consists of chestnut and quebracho tree bark as well as resins.
They receive the bark in big sacks and extract the tannins by cooking it. The horsehides are put into certain frames that move around constantly. This ensures that the tannins don’t settle and the hides are evenly tanned. They also on a regular basis to ensure the solutions has the right consistency.
After thirty days, the horsehides are taken out of the solution and then shaved to expose the shell. Subsequently, it is put into another pit with a stronger solutions and tanned for another 30 days.
The two stages with different tannin concentrations are important because otherwise only the outside skin fibers would be penetrated by the tannins, while the inside would be still raw.
Overall, the leather is tanned in two separate pits for a total of 60 days. However, it takes an additional 4 months to create shell cordovan. After the tanning process, the leather is treated in different steps, polished and most importantly, it has to rest.
Nick Horween told me that sometimes they have to turn customers down due to lack of supply. When these customers then see the piles of shell cordovan in the factory, they don’t always understand that the shells have to rest. Also, it is polished and colored by hand and altogether there is much more time involved in creating cordovan leather. As such, it is also more than twice expensive as other leathers by Horween.
Personally, I am not a huge fan of Cordovan shoes because they wrinkle in a certain way, are harder and less breathable. However, I know quite a few people who swear by it. Apart from shoes, you can now purchase cordovan briefcases, belts, wallets, etc. You should keep in mind that larger or longer pieces are always made from a number of different pieces because a shell is only so big.
My advice is to check it out yourself – chances are you will either love or hate it.
In order to better understand the whole tanning process, I can wholeheartedly recommend watching the following video which shows you the different steps of the cordovan production.
Although Cordovan comes in all kinds of colors ranging from black over brown and red to green, there is one particular color that is knows as cordovan. It is a rich blend of burgundy and a dark shade of rose. However, this classification can be misleading because cordovan leather has its very own way of achieving a certain kind patina through exposure
How to Clean and Polish Cordovan
As outlined above, Cordovan is different than other leathers and as such, many claim the treatment is different. In my opinion, you should use an emulsion shoe polish and rub it into the leather in concentric circles with either a brush or a piece of cloth. Some also claim that a shoe bone should be used. Unlike most shoe horns, this bone is actually a hind (leg) bone of a deer. Apparently, it is used for cordovan because it has the right amount of oil to ensure the surface is not damaged without over saturating it. In my personal experience, the outcome with or without a shoe bone was the same. As you will soon find out, there are many ways to polish shoes and everybody has a little secret.
With regards to shoe polish, Saphir now has a cordovan shoe polish in their portfolio but a regular emulsion cream (not turpentine wax) paste will do just fine as well. Since Cordovan is a very rough leather, you do not have to worry about it and if you go to the lengths of using emulsion shoe polish and a brush, you are ahead of most people out there.