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Shell Cordovan Leather Shoes Are Expensive, Painful and I Love Them

Shell cordovan is prized for its beauty and durability, but with a painful break-in period and steep price tag, is the so-called king of leather worth the fuss?

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Rancourt & Co.

Welcome to Worth the Price, a recurring series exploring some of menswear’s most covetable and expensive products. This week: shell cordovan shoes.

Your first pair of nice shoes was probably a Goodyear-welted dress shoe or boot. For me it was Wolverine 1000 Mile boots. Others undoubtedly picked up Allen Edmonds Park Avenues. Whatever yours was, it probably wasn’t made from shell cordovan leather.

Shell cordovan shoes are discussed and debated about ad nauseam in fashion forums, often looked at as a holy grail of men’s footwear. Once you had checked off that first box of Goodyear welted shoes, whether it was the Red Wing Iron Ranger or the Alden Indy boot, the next step in the ascension toward shoe collection mastery was a pair of shell cordovan shoes. So, let me explain why.

What Is Shell Cordovan?

Photo: via Ashland Leather

Shell cordovan comes from horses and is named after the Spanish region of Cordoba from which the specific leather tradition originates and is derived from the hindquarter of a horse, referred to as the shell. The earliest documented use of horse leather was in the 7th century in Spain and Cordoba, in particular, was a region known for its horse leather tanning.

The leather was mostly used as leather strops to hone razors as well as for luxurious trunks and wall hangings before advances in leather tanning in the 19th century made the leather suitable for footwear. Today, it’s sought after for its durability, luster and is most often seen in high-end shoes and leather goods.

Why You Should

It’s more durable. Shell cordovan has a number of advantages over traditional cowhide. The pores are much smaller than other leathers which give the leather a smoother finish and a more brilliant luster. Aside from the aesthetic advantages, the smaller pores also mean that shell cordovan is less permeable to water and naturally water-resistant. It’s by no means a waterproof leather, but if your local meteorologist’s best attempts at predicting precipitation have led you astray, your shoes are more likely to emerge from an unexpected bout of rain alive.

When flexed, shell cordovan also tends to ‘ripple’ rather than crease like other leathers. Over time, even with proper care, repeated creasing can cause leather to crack and rip. Because shell cordovan ripples instead of creasing, it maintains its integrity for much longer.

It moulds to your foot better. In addition to its durability, shell cordovan also stretches less than other leathers. While other leathers may over-stretch with time, shell cordovan keeps its shape much better, resulting in a better long-term fit.

It’s rare. If you’re the kind of guy who needs the best of the best and exclusive goods, shell cordovan is a rare product. That’s due to the way shell cordovan is made. Regions that include horse in their diet are scarce and that’s just the beginning of its rarity.

Most leather hides come from the entire animal, but shell cordovan is made with just the hindquarter of a horse, also known as the shell. It’s here where the leather is thickest. Because the materials are limited to this specific region, a single horse yields much less material than a cow. Typically, a pair of shoes requires about one and a half shells.

In addition to limited supply, shell cordovan requires an intense tanning process that can take six months to produce. The specific skills necessary to tan shell cordovan also mean less tanneries are capable of producing the material.

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Photo: crockettandjones

Why You Shouldn’t

It’s expensive. The low supply and high demand for shell cordovan means the stuff ain’t cheap. Plus, the tanning process involved with shell cordovan is more intense than typical leathers, adding another layer of cost. Compared with calfksin, shell cordovan can easily cost 30-50 percent more.

It’s tough to break in. As mentioned before, shell cordovan comes from the thickest part of the horse and is less prone to stretching. This makes it noticeably more difficult to break in than calfskin and unless you’re considering a shell cordovan belt, watch strap or leather wallet, you’re gonna feel it.

Caring for them is more specific. Because shell cordovan reacts differently to lotions and other forms of leather care, it requires shell cordovan-specific care products. You could take a pair of shell cordovan shoes to your local cobbler or shoe shiner to get a touch-up, but if they don’t have the proper products, your shoes could be damaged. In this case, you’d be safer to just do it yourself. Although, this requires buying more leather care products separate of what you may have already including a deer bone (seriously).

Photo: Grant Stone Shoes

What to Consider If You Do

Color. Color 8 is by far the most common color of shell cordovan available. Shell cordovan doesn’t take dyes as easily as other leathers and is limited in its range of colors. Unless you’re looking for a shade of lavender, though, you should be good.

Style. For your first pair, you might want to go with a classic, versatile style. Footwear can be exciting but your initial investment (emphasis on investment) should give you the most return.

Sizing. Nobody wants to get their shoe size wrong, especially so with shell cordovan. Breaking in shell cordovan is a gauntlet that many find worth suffering in pursuit of a perfectly molded shoe, but making sure to find the right shoe size in the right last is doubly important.

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Photo: via Horween

Why I Love Mine

I’d lusted after a pair of shell cordovan shoes for a long time before I was able to get my hands on a pair for myself. Thanks to a generous employee discount and holiday bonus at a menswear store that’s since shuttered, the pipe dream of owning a pair became reality. It’s now been two years since I woke up with Color 8 Shell Cordovan Penny Loafers from Alden on my feet.

Compared to other leather shoes I’ve owned (a pair of Wolverine 1000 Mile shoes in brown Chromexcel leather, another pair of Alden penny loafers in snuff suede, a pair of Hermés calfskin leather boots, among others), breaking in this pair of loafers was difficult. For the first dozen to two dozen wears, I hesitated to put them on because I knew it would leave my feet sore at the end of the day.

After that, though, the quality of the leather, in particular, its resistance to stretching has meant that they’ve molded to my feet without getting too loose. Other leather shoes I’ve owned have stretched enough to require an insert or thicker socks to keep from sliding

In terms of patina, the range of tones goes from a deep burgundy to mahogany that I find really appealing. The color can always remain more consistent with proper shoe polish, if you’d like. Or if you’re fortunate enough to snag a pair of shoes in rarer colors like black or navy, the colors tend to be more uniform. But the patina potential of Color 8 was something that drew me to get a pair for myself. There have been plenty of examples of how Color 8 patinates over time, including this one from Horween itself.

Photo: via Horween

Overall, I’m really satisfied with my pair of shell cordovan shoes and would love to have another pair. But, I’m not sure that I’d pay $800+ for a new pair. Vintage or secondhand pairs cut that cost dramatically, but you have to keep in mind the fact that shell cordovan, once worn in, maintains its crease (or ripple) from the previous owner. If your foot flexes at different points in the shoe from its previous owner, you’ll end up putting in more ripples in the shoe, deforming its original shape further. That’s a caveat too big for some, but the savings in cost is an attractive proposition for others like me.

Still, at shell cordovan’s current price points, I can’t say that I’ll be picking up another pair any time soon. If and when that eventually happens, I’d probably end up with another pair of conservative shoes to make the next investment worth it. Was I drowning in cash, my next pair would be more adventurous. But if you have the means to get a pair for yourself (whether that’s with an employee discount or not), I’d say go for it. If you’re not in the right financial position, your feet can wait.

Leisure Handsewn Loafer in Color 8 Shell Cordovan by Alden $772

Shell Cordovan Longwing Bluchers by Alden for J.Crew $790

Pedro Boot in Navy Cordovan by Yuketen $1,500

Derby Shoe in Black Shell Cordovan by Viberg $1,070

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