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What Is Cordovan Leather? Everything You Need to Know

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what is cordovan leather

What do the Visigoths, Moors, and your feet all have in common? 

Simple: they all love good-quality, high-end cordovan leather! 

This unique centuries-old style of leather is one of the toughest and most beautiful materials around. It’s used to craft boots sturdy enough to last indefinitely (yes, you read that right) with the proper care and maintenance.

In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into everything you need to know about cordovan leather: where it’s from, how it’s made, and what sets it apart (and above) other types of leather.

We’ll also show you what we believe to be the three best cordovan leather boots on the market.

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Let’s jump right in.

Shell Cordovan Leather: Everything You Wanted to Know

Where Is Cordovan Leather From?

Cordovan leather—also known as “shell cordovan”—originated in the Spanish city of Cordoba. It was originally produced by the Visigoths way back in the 7th Century A.D., and the tradition was continued by the Moors when they conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, it became highly popular in Europe due to its durability. It was chiefly used in razor strops.

Modern leather-makers, however, are using it in the production of high-end boots, shoes, wallets, belts, and other leather goods.

In the U.S., the majority of cordovan leather is manufactured by the Horween Leather Company just outside Chicago. The Chicago Tribune actually gave the company the nickname “the Cordovan capital of the world”.

What Is Cordovan Leather, Really?

Cordovan leather isn’t cow leather. It’s actually equine leather—a.k.a. horse leather.

Yes, that’s right: cordovan leather is made using the “shell” (fibrous flat connective tissue) beneath horses’ hides.

However, in order to qualify as genuine “cordovan leather”, it can only be made using the shell from the horse’s rump.

Once removed, the horse-hide is measured an exact 18 inches along the backbone from the root of the tail. The hide is then cut into two pieces:

  1. The “front”, which is typically used for gloves or shoe tops.
  2. The “butt”, which is used for the manufacturing of shoes, watch straps, and archery finger protectors.
horse and cow hides markedup
Nicola Meyer

How Is the Tanning Process Different?

The tanning process used to produce cordovan leather is roughly 6 months long, and involves a number of different stages in order to produce a beautiful finished product.

Step 1: Salted horse hides are delivered to the tanner’s. A great deal of cordovan leather, especially the leather produced in the Horween factory in Chicago, is sourced from France.

Step 2: The hides are cut down. The cutting is done entirely by hand in order to ensure maximum accuracy. As you saw above, only the two pieces on either side of the horse’s backbone are used to craft cordovan leather.

Step 3: The hides are stripped of all hair. This is done in a huge washing drum, using potent chemicals.

Step 4: The hides are treated. Once the hair is all gone, the leather is left to pickle for roughly 24 hours. After that, salt is sprinkled on the leather to bring it to a specific pH level so all the chrome is driven into the leather. Finally, the bating process eliminates unwanted grease, fats, and proteins from the material. Now it’s ready for tanning!

Step 5: The hides are tanned. Rather than using spinning drums like most shoe leathers are, cordovan leather is tanned in pits. The vegetable tanning process involves frequent applications of oils. These oils are the reason cordovan leather is so shiny and has such a “spongy” smooth feel. The tanning process usually takes around 30 days.

Step 6: The tanned leather is glazed. This is the really cool step in the process that leads to such unique-looking and long-lasting leather. Once the oils have been repeatedly applied, the flesh side of the leather is “glazed” using a large steel wheel that compresses the leather to smooth it out and concentrate all the oils and fibers into a thinner layer. Finally, a wax is applied to give the leather its beautiful high-gloss sheen.

Step 7: The leather is “rested”. This is a crucial step in the production process. After the hides are tanned and glazed, they still need time to “rest”, to let the tannins really penetrate fully into the material instead of just remaining on the surface. Think of how you rest a juicy piece of steak or chicken breast—that’s exactly what needs to happen with leather. The resting time takes about 4 months. Only then is it ready to turn into glorious shoes, boots, wallets, and other leather goods.  

The Qualities of Good Cordovan Leather

Once the tanning process is complete and the leather is turned into your footwear, the finished product is absolutely gorgeous. It’s sleek, shiny, and has a wonderful smoothness to the touch.

However, it’s also sturdy and stiff initially. The break-in period for cordovan leather boots can be a bit longer, too. Your boots may actually be uncomfortable for the first few weeks. Once broken in, though, they’re among the most comfortable boots you’ll ever wear because of how supple the leather can become.

Unlike many other leathers, cordovan leather won’t crease.

Creasing happens when the grain layer and fiber layer of the hides used for the leather separate. The oval-shaped “shells” derived from the flesh layer of the horse hides don’t have a grain layer, so there is no pebbling or creasing.

Instead, you get a lovely rippling that is entirely unique to cordovan leather.

The dense pores of the horse’s hindquarters are naturally water-resistant. Thanks to the frequent oil applications during the tanning process, cordovan leather is as waterproof as you’ll find.  

And, of course, the thing that makes cordovan leather so popular: its patina.

The high oil content of the leather ensures that the more you use it, the more rich and complex a patina it will develop.

Drawbacks of Shell Cordovan Leather

As with any other type of leather, shell cordovan isn’t exactly a perfect material.

In addition to the high cost of its manufacturing, its scarcity, and its long production time, there are a couple of drawbacks you need to know:

  1. It doesn’t accept dyes well. Because the horse-hide used to make the leather is so tough and the pores so dense, dyes won’t absorb well into the material. Typically, cordovan leather comes in black, various shades of brown, and the unique, dark burgundy called “cordovan color”.
  2. It isn’t breathable. In fact, on its own cordovan leather can be too hot to wear during warmer weather because the leather doesn’t allow heat to escape. Most all-season cordovan leather boots feature an inner lining of some sort (cotton, wool, or synthetic fabrics) that allow heat and moisture to escape. Lack of breathability can lead to the breakdown of other parts of the shoes, such as the leather insole.

How Does Cordovan Leather Age?

As I explained above, cordovan leather won’t crease like other types of leather. Instead, it ripples.

There is no separation of layers, so the leather shows its age and wear more slowly than with other leather types.

The hides are also tough enough that they won’t stretch or sag with frequent use.

The hides’ natural water-resistance and the wax finish mean it’s a boot you can wear in wet and rainy weather.

However, be aware that frequent exposure to water can wear away the waxy or shellac finish, and there is risk that water will soak into the boots and cause discoloration in the leather.

Thankfully, with regular care and maintenance, you can prevent the leather from being damaged.

How to Care for Cordovan Leather

The steps are fairly simple:

  1. Brush with a horse-hair brush to “refresh” the leather, eliminate oils and fats, and restore a measure of the surface’s shine.
  2. Wipe with a damp cloth to clean off any dirt, mud, or grime.
  3. Rub the clean shoe with a deer bone. Deer bone is believed to have the “ideal” oil composition to polish cordovan leather: enough to add to the oils in the leather without oversaturating it. You can actually rub away all but the largest dents, scratches, nicks, and scuffs.
  4. Apply renovateur. This is a product crafted specifically to renew cordovan leather. Saphir Renovateur Cream is one of our favorites—its formulated with mink oil, beeswax, and lanolin, all of which nourish, restore, and clean the leather surface.
  5. Apply shoe cream. Shoe cream provides a layer of protection against dirt, grime, water, and damage. However, it will slow the development of the leather’s patina. Apply the cream and let it sit for up to 10 minutes before brushing it with a horse-hair brush.
  6. Polish. Use a nylon cloth to get that final shine on your boots.

And just like that, they’re restored, shined, and ready to head out the door looking absolutely dapper.

3 Best Cordovan Leather Boots Right Now

1. Alden Jumper Boot

The Alden Shoe Company is one of the oldest existing bootmakers today. Founded back in 1884 in Middleborough, Massachusetts, it has made a name for itself by crafting high-quality luxury products at a premium price.

The Alden Jumper Boot is crafted in the style popular among paratroopers during World War II, built from quality shell cordovan that will last for decades.

The boots are designed using the Barrie last that has been popular among shoemakers for centuries. The result is a stylish boot that strikes the ideal balance between casual and upscale. Despite its low profile, it has a heavy presence that makes it a more authoritative boot.

The boots are finished with a commando outsole, Goodyear welt construction, and a tempered steel shank directly beneath the arch. They’re both comfortable and supportive for a long day on your feet.

Alden Jumper Boot

Finished with a commando outsole, Goodyear welt construction, and a tempered steel shank directly beneath the arch---the Alden Jumpers are stylish, comfortable and supportive for a long day on your feet.

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2. Allen Edmonds Dalton

Looking for a slightly higher-cut boot? The Dalton by Allen Edmonds is cut in the classic lace-up wingtip style, complete with ornate brogue detailing. The boots are ideal for dressing up for a night on the town or dressing down for a casual stroll.

Their leather-lined interior combats the natural heat-retention of cordovan leather so your feet stay cool even in summer. The double-layer, oak-tanned leather soles and CustomCork insoles make sure you’re comfortable for long hours of walking.

And, of course, the high-luster shell cordovan leather sourced from Chicago’s own Horween tannery is guaranteed to last for years—but, in a pinch, can even be recrafted by the bootmaker.

Allen Edmonds Dalton Wingtip

Cut in the classic lace-up wingtip style, complete with ornate brogue detailing, the AE Dalton Wingtips are ideal for dressing up for a night on the town or dressing down for a casual stroll. Their leather-lined interior combats the natural heat-retention of cordovan leather so your feet stay cool even in summer. The double-layer, oak-tanned leather soles and CustomCork insoles make sure you’re comfortable for long hours of walking.

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3. Carmina Balmoral

Where better to shop for cordovan leather than in the country where it all began?

Spanish boot-maker Carmina is famous for making some of the best cordovan leather footwear on the planet, including their Balmoral cap toe boot.

The punched straight cap is beautifully subtle, great for pairing with a suit, slacks, or business casual outfit.

Built on the Forest last (one of Carmina’s oldest), the shoe has a wonderfully natural fit. The design includes rounding at the tip, ample space in the footbed, and a normal instep that will keep your feet comfortable for hours and miles on end.

Add to that the bark-tanned double leather sole and Goodyear-welt construction, and you’ve got yourself a pair of boots as sturdy as they are beautiful.

Carmina Balmoral

Spanish boot-maker Carmina is famous for making some of the best cordovan leather footwear on the planet, including their Balmoral cap toe boot. The punched straight cap is beautifully subtle, great for pairing with a suit, slacks, or business casual outfit.

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A Cordovan Conclusion

Cordovan leather is a high-end leather that, through meticulous material sourcing and painstaking production, results in a truly gorgeous and sturdy finished product.

Boots, shoes, and any leather goods made from cordovan leather have the potential to last a lifetime with proper care and maintenance.

I’ve had my Alden Jumper Boots for five years now, and they look as gorgeous as the day I bought them. Only they’re fully broken in, incredibly comfortable, and featuring both a glorious patina and the rippling unique to cordovan leather.

Trust me, the investment may be higher, but it’s a pair of boots that will always serve you well.  

Alden Jumper Boot

Finished with a commando outsole, Goodyear welt construction, and a tempered steel shank directly beneath the arch---the Alden Jumpers are stylish, comfortable and supportive for a long day on your feet.

Check Best Price
If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

FAQs

What is special about Cordovan leather?

There are a lot of things special about cordovan leather: the hides used (horse rather than cow), the tanning process (which lasts up to six months), the additions of oils (which result in a glossy sheen), and the waxy, water-resistant finish.

What is Cordovan leather made of?

Cordovan leather is made using horse hide, but only the hide immediately above the tail root and along the breastbone. This hide has much denser pores, so it doesn’t take dyes as effectively but will never crease or split.

Why is Cordovan so expensive?

Scarcity of material, complex tanning and production process, and high demand all combine to make cordovan leather one of the costliest leather types on the market. But once you own a pair of cordovan leather boots, they are tough enough to last a lifetime.

Say goodbye to sweaty feet.
Say hello to the last boot socks you'll need.
Discover →

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