Shell Cordovan can be a mystery. It is fabulously expensive, relatively rare, and looks a lot like normal full grain leather. The question on many minds is “Is it worth it?” It’s a fair question worth some research. You get what you pay for, but what are you getting with shell cordovan products that makes them worth the extra scrilla?
Phil Kalas and Nick Horween from Horween Leather Co. are sharing their knowledge of genuine shell cordovan straight from the factory floor with us.
Horween is a legendary tanning company that has stayed private and in family hands. This is quite remarkable given the number of economic challenges America has face over the last 108 years. Horween has remained in family hands, kept a great reputation, and has not compromised on the quality of their shell cordovan.
First, introductions, would you please tell us who are you and what are your responsibilities at Horween Leather Co?
Nick Horween: Horween Leather was founded by my great, great grandfather and my father, Skip, and I currently oversee production on a daily basis.
Phil Kalas: General, non-technical, oversight of production/maintenance/office systems to make sure we make the best possible leather and deliver on time.
How long has Horween been making shell cordovan?
The original product Horween started producing in 1905 was shell cordovan. In fact, this was the only product produced at that time. Shell cordovan was used in razor strops to hone straight razors.
We adapted the tannage slightly by increasing its fat and oil content to make it more supple. Isidore Horween made this adjustment after the invention of the disposable razor which decreased the demand for razor strops. The leather (shell cordovan) was immediately prized for its durability.
How do you “hot stuff” oils and waxes into leather? This sounds like magic! You do this to chromexcel leather as well right?
Truth be told, there is a bit of magic involved. Each piece of leather is a natural product and the food-grade fats we use are also natural products. There is a science to tanning leather but sometimes it is more akin to cooking. Hot stuffing is a process done by very few tanneries in the world. Hot stuffing is technically part of a retanning process where we reintroduce fats/greases/oils to nourish the fibers of the skin. The retanning process is responsible for most of the leather characteristics in terms of tactile and other sensory qualities (look, feel, smell). For hot stuffing we start by steam-heating wooden drums, add retanned or veg tanned leather, and add a special blend of greases, waxes, and oils that are all propriety to Horween and mixed in house special for each product we make. Greases, waxes, and oils are pounded into the skins by the tumbling action of the heated mills. The process is specifically different from other fat liquor methods used where emulsified oils/fats are used to condition and nourish the fibers of the skin — the steam heat is not required to melt the oils/waxes/grease to penetrate the fibers.
Hot stuffing is special because it allows us to use raw, less refined conditioning agents like beeswax, tallow, lanolin and paraffin. These impart very favorable characteristics, like water resistance, and we have to use the hot stuffing process to introduce them as they cannot be emulsified.
How much does the raw shell cordovan leather cost?
Shell cordovan price is determined by the shell size. On average it costs about $100 per square foot but we do not sell by the square foot; just by the piece.
Where do you get the horse hides used for shell cordovan?
Raw material quality is paramount at Horween. A great majority of our horsehides come from France and Canada where horses are still raised as part of food industry.
How are the grades of shell cordovan rated? Aren’t there different grades based on size quality?
Shell cordovan is graded 1, X, 2, 3, 4, 5, or chip. The sizes are all equal quality but are different sizes.
What industry uses the most shell cordovan?
Footwear by a great majority.
Is there any tanning process more arduous than tanning shell cordovan?
No. This is as good as it gets.
Does the supply of shell cordovan vary much? Is it ever in short supply?
Shell cordovan is always in short supply. This is due to the limited amount of suitable horsehides available, and also the long tanning process. It varies quite a bit as well. Currently we are only able to produce about half as much as we were producing 2 years ago.
How do I justify the expense of $500+ shoes, $200+ wallets, $100+ watch straps, etc? Will these products last longer then less expensive calfskin products.
A product made of shell cordovan will last multiple lifetimes. Because of the unique, non-creasing characteristics of shell cordovan, footwear can last a very long time by replacing the soles as needed – bottoms can be replaced many times, depending on the construction of the shoe. The best part of using shell cordovan in a wallet or watch strap is the natural rubbing a wear placed on the shell which starts developing an amazing patina that develops with each use. It is similar to having a fine wine that you can drink every day and keeps getting better.
Is there any other tannery that produces shell cordovan leather?
There are a few tanneries in the world that tan horsehides for their shells. None of the tanneries have been doing it as long as Horween. Our processes are very traditional and our experience gives us an edge. We like to think that the market prefers our product, and we’re very proud of the time and care we put into our shell cordovan.
What is your personal favorite shell cordovan product?
The Ashland Leather Fat Herbie in whiskey of course! It is quite hard to find a bad product made out of shell cordovan.