What is shell cordovan?

A stack of shell cordovan rolls

You might have just a vague image that shell cordovan is some kind of luxurious leather. That's not wrong but there is much more to it. In this page we will give you detailed answer to the broad question of "What is shell cordovan?"


Shell cordovan is horse leather.

In a nutshell, cordovan refers to leather specifically taken from the rump of a horse. In each buttock of a horse there is a layer called shell underneath the skin. This particular part of a horse skin has fibers in the dermis in exceptional density compared to any other animals. This high density is what makes cordovan one of the most durable kinds of leather.


Nowadays cordovan is mostly used for fashion products, but until the early 20th century it was used mainly for sharpening razor blades. Cordovan has also been traditionally used to make school bags for elementary students in Japan as they need to be highly durable because every student uses the same bag for 6 school years. (Just imagine how elementary students treat their school bags and how durable they need to be if they are going to be used for 6 years.)


Horse rawhides

Horse raw hides before the production of cordovan.


Why is it called shell cordovan?

There are several theories about the origin of the word cordovan but most likely it was derived from the Cordoba region of Spain allegedly where cordovan was first developed.

As mentioned earlier cordovan is made from a layer of dense fibers in the rump of a horse, and this layer is called shell. Therefore we get the name shell cordovan.


Horse culatta crusts

Tanned horse culatta (buttock) crusts, where cordovan will be produced from.


Why is shell cordovan so expensive?

Shell cordovan is sometimes referred to as the diamond of leather as it is considered a precious material. Shell cordovan can cost up to 10 times more expensive than mass produced leather like pigmented cow leather. But what make it so expensive?

Probably the most definitive cause is the scarcity of its raw material.  Apart from some exotic leather, most leather is obtained as byproduct of meat production. Shell cordovan is made from horse raw hides and the horse raw hides come from horse meat production. However unlike beef, pork, and chicken which are largely consumed worldwide, the consumption of horse meat is very limited and it is even tabooed in some countries. This means there is much lower supply of horse raw hides compared to popular leather like cow and this greatly affects the final price of shell cordovan.

Moreover cordovan cannot be obtained from every horse raw hide. There is great variation in each skin as some do not have shell layer at all or some have shell layers so small that cannot be made into shell cordovan. Also as we will explain in the separate page, the cordovan production takes quite a lot of time and needs manual processes that require delicate techniques of skilled workers.

To summarize the scarcity of raw material and labor-intensive processes of production both contribute to the high price of shell cordovan. But does its high price scare users away from shell cordovan products? On the contrary the demand for shell cordovan is higher then ever before. As more people get to know about this unique material, it's creating more and more fans for the beauty of shell cordovan and the wide variety of products that it can create.