Crash Course: Shell Cordovan

Our friend James and I were discussing the glory of shell cordovan the other day when he was trying on a pair of Alden 990s.  As he set them down after, I looked at the shoes and remarked how they seem to enhance everything around them - even a dusty old oriental rug, as seen above.  Shell cordovan is a material that is often not fully understood, so I thought I would take a little time to explain some of it's properties and history.

Legend has it that Spanish Moslem gentlemen rode horse wearing the most spectacular boots, made of a material stronger than leather, but at the same time more brilliant and elegant.  It was a material with which they made not only their boots, but also shields and standards; by doing so, they demonstrated their standing and generally differentiated themselves from others while protecting their legs from field brush and branches.  The material they used was shell cordovan, an Andalusian discovery.  It was eventually copied and maintained by Europeans, its tannage becoming an all but lost art due to its scarcity and elevated price.  Today the art is maintained by Horween Leather Company of Chicago and the shoemakers of Alden.

In the horsehide is hidden a shell, one on each side.  Andalusian tanners discovered these shells and shaved the hides until they revealed the shell of "cordovan" within the hide.  They tanned the shell and colored it until it shined with a mirror-like brilliance taking on a profound red wine color.

The structure of cordovan is similar to honeycomb and made of cartilage.  The shell is stronger than leather and unlike leather's dry and fibrous structure, cordovan is full of fats and natural oils.  Thanks to these oils, cordovan is more flexible than leather and when bent or twisted does not wrinkle, rather it bends or creases in waves.

The process of tanning cordovan is long and painstaking.  Cordovan is tanned and produced through the use of natural vegetable oils.  Horween was, and still is considered, one of the most distinguished tanners in the world using natural tanning and dying processes.  Since they used natural, vegetable based tanning processes, Horween could follow the ancient Andalusian methods to tan and color cordovan.

According to Horween, "These hides have to be tanned slowly, nourished with natural oils over weeks, shaved and polished in the old fashioned way."  By using an artisan's approach to the tanning and finishing processes, Horween achieves the rich patina and feel prized by generations of shoe and accessory makers.

Shell cordovan may be the perfect leather for shoes, however it is a leather for the old school shoemaker.  Cordovan demands the measured pace of hand shoemaking and patient finishing.  Durable yet elegant, with a deep, lustrous finish, cordovan shoes are as pleasing to the foot as they are to the eye.  Again, we go back to the tannage, as vegetable tanning produces leather that learns the contours of the wearer's foot, providing an almost custom quality to the fit. 

Alden, its heritage of handcrafting gentlemen's shoes extending back to 1884 and unique understanding of the importance of comfort and support in fine men's shoes, is the acknowledged master in working this special leather into extraordinary footwear.

 Alden 990
Color 8 Shell Cordovan Plain Toe Blucher
Features: Horween shell cordovan upper, oak tanned
leather sole, full reverse welt, steel shank through arch
for support, cork insole, full leather linings
Fitting: Barrie Last
Price: $561

 Please contact us at 503.922.1298 or at sales@winnperry,com for information regarding the sale of Alden shoes.

August 29, 2009 by Jordan Sayler
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Leo said:

This is a great post Jordan!

Erik Arneson said:

Thanks for the information, Jordan. Those are indeed beautiful shoes.

Speedmaster said:


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