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Shell Cordovan: Inside Out

Updated: Feb 20

The idea of shell cordovan always intrigued me. It’s durable, self-healing, shiny, and it doesn’t crease.

The color (and shine) first drew me in. I was guilty of thinking that shell cordovan refers to a specific shade of red.

Then I learned that shell cordovan is not even made of cowhide (before that I started to think that the shoe industry had gone mad for charging significantly more for a specific shade of red).

Then I learned that it’s made of a horse’s buttocks. So yield is very low from a whole hide.

Then I learned that the leather is inside out (hence the title). The part we see is the flesh side, not the skin side.

Then I learned that it takes six months to produce.

Then I understood.

And I was in.


Since then I’ve had three pairs of shoes, two straps, and a wallet made out of this leather. All in some form of burgundy. All Horween, except one produced by Comipel.

I. Shoes

I started with a pair of apron derbies by Crockett & Jones, which I got from eBay. The shell had been slightly bleached by the sun, and had a two-tone look.

Shell in general will fade and get lighter due to sun exposure. How fast this takes place depends on a number of factors. Other than duration under the sun, the finishing on the shell is the primary factor.

Alden, for instance, applies a heavy finish on their shells, unlike Crockett & Jones. This is the reason why Alden’s burgundy shell (called color no. 8 by Horween) is darker and usually more purplish.

But no matter the finishing, it won’t stop shell from fading. The shoe below used to be black. It sat on display under the sun for a few years and the black pigment had simply given up.

Sun-bleached black shell cordovan. Credit: @aldenmadison on Instagram.

After consultations with Emil of Winson and Steve of Bedo's Leatherworks, I decided to take on one of my scarier projects: I decided to recolor the shoes. This gave me a better understanding of the leather. I stripped the shell with acetone and applied Fiebing’s dye. Shell is less absorbent than cowhide, which necessitated me applying a few more layers of dye. I then finished it off with a layer of diluted acrylic, Alden-style.

Re-dyed shell. Top: Comparison against new shell cordovan. There is a slight difference in shade. Bottom: Looks almost black under certain lights. These two pictures highlight how shell cordovan shows colors differently depending on the light.

Since then I bought two more shell cordovan shoes. One by Fortuna (using ComipRe-dyed shell. Top: Comparison against new shell cordovan. There is a slight difference in shade. Bottom: Looks almost black under certain lights. These two pictures highlight how shell cordovan shows colors differently depending on the light.el) and Alden (using Horween).

One thing I learned the hard way (but should have deduced from the beginning) is that shell cordovan does not stretch. What little stretchiness can be found in bovine leather, it’s even less in shell cordovan.

This is obviously a byproduct of the density of shell cordovan. So, be mindful of this when purchasing shell cordovan shoes. Avoid shoes that you need to “stretch into.” And don’t forget to flex the shoes when trying them on, because a pair of shoes might fit when standing still but feel tight around the toes when walking due to the added weight on the toes.

Top: Fortuna Shoes in Comipel shell cordovan. Bottom: Alden in Horween shell cordovan.

Given the high shine, one might argue that shell cordovan works best with formal wear. I am on the fence on this one.

While I agree that shiny shoes tend to look more formal (hence why patent leather — the shiniest leather there is — is reserved for black tie), I find myself wearing my shell cordovan shoes with more casual ensembles.

Perhaps it's because of shell cordovan's synonymity with rugged style or its image of durability. Durability, of course, is not synonymous with formal wear (think fine wool with high super number for dinner jackets, and coarse, thick tweed for country wear).

Whatever the reason, I tend to wear my shell cordovan shoes with denim, corduroy, and khakis. The most formal trousers with which I wear my shell cordovan shoes are light worsted trousers. Anything darker, I reach for my calf shoes.

II. Leather Goods

Other than shoes, shell cordovan is a great material for leather goods.

I first dabbled into straps, which has the lowest barrier of entry in terms of cost. I cannot remember the maker and the tannery, unfortunately. In terms of the color, it's practically the same as Horween's color no. 8.

Then while I was at A&A Crack in Northampton, I bought a strip of shell cordovan, which I sent to a few craftspeople to turn into small leather goods.

The first I had made was a wallet by Simplea Leather, which I’ve used for the better part of two years. Over time it’s gathered some scratches but they can always be removed with some cream and brushing.

Then I had a strap made by a Pepper Strap for my Presage. Both my wallet and strap have burnished edges, which is possible because shell cordovan is vegetable tanned.

Something to be mindful of when making leather goods out of shell cordovan is the thickness. This may not be an issue for shoes, but every millimeter counts when it comes to leather goods.

That thickness can result in a bulky wallet or a strap that gets caught by a watch case between the lugs. So always use thin leather lining or skive the shell as necessary.

III. Closing

It's impossible to discuss shell cordovan without discussing the price. It's indeed the main reason so many are put off. Depending on the brand, shell cordovan shoes may cost 30-70% more than their cowhide shoes counterpart.

Whether it's worth the price, it's for each of us to decide.

But what I can say is that in terms of raw material alone, shell cordovan is probably the one material that gives me the most joy.

Written by: Nikki Krisadtyo


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