The Most Expensive Leather for Your Projects

There are many leather types in the industry that have specific characteristics. When it comes to animal hides as leather materials, expensive means more durable and long-lasting. So if you want quality products that age well after years of use and will not make your money go to waste, then expensive leather is the right one for you. 

What is the most expensive leather for your projects? Shell Cordovan is the most expensive leather in the market because of its durability and origin, dating back centuries ago. This leather is also tanned for six months and has a minimal supply of rawhide coming from horses. That is why very few tanneries venture into producing Shell Cordovan leather.

This article will tell you about the numerous reasons why Shell Cordovan leather is worthy of your money. I will also talk about the different leather projects or products that utilize this kind of leather. Lastly, I included a basic care routine to make your Shell Cordovan items good as new for a long time. 

What Makes Shell Cordovan an Expensive Leather

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Shell Cordovan is a favorite leather type that is known to be very expensive. These are worn in shoes, belts, bags, and even used as a razor strop in polishing knives. Why is shell cordovan so expensive that products of this leather type are very limited and are always out of stock? What makes it so unique, setting it apart from other types of leather? You’ve come to the right place to find your answers. 

A Well-Known Durable Leather Centuries Back

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Since its first tanning development in the 7th century by the Visigoths and later on the Moors, Shell Cordovan has come a long way in making quality leather goods. Its name is derived from Cordoba, Spain, which is where it is first produced.

The shell is part of the horse’s rump, found between the buttock’s muscle and the outer skin. Unlike other animal leather skin, which is made of fiber, shell cordovan is a membrane in the middle of two epidermis layers that produce durable leather material.

Because of its known natural durability, shell cordovan is first used on armor breastplates and shields. It was also used for creating high-quality artworks during the 1700s to 1800s. These artworks are often decorated to walls and even war equipment. During the 1900s, razor strops were the main product made out of a shell cordovan. The demand for strops increased the marketability of this leather and made it known up to the current time. Now, shell cordovan is mainly used in producing luxury shoes, bags, and belts that are considered collector’s items because of its rarity and popularity among leather lovers. 

Rawhide Came from a Very Limited Source

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Horses are not a common source of the leather hide. They are mainly raised for farming purposes and are not available worldwide. Therefore, the demand for rawhide is always high while the supply remains low. This is one of the sole reasons for shell cordovan’s high market price. 

Aside from its very limited source of rawhide, shell cordovan is found at a particular spot in the horsehide. Leather is drawn explicitly from the horse’s buttocks, where a small amount of leather can be harvested from an already small number of horses. 

The Shell Cordovan Tanning Process Takes Six Months

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Before this leather is used for different products, it takes six months of tanning which undergoes a rigorous process to improve its overall quality. There are only a few tanneries that are skilled in tanning shell cordovan leather.

Shell cordovan is a vegetable-tanned leather that is very environmentally friendly. It has an oily touch to it and is not as hard as chrome-tanned leather. Horween tannery is one of the most popular tanneries to produce shell cordovan. In the next section, I will discuss the tanning process followed explicitly by the Horween tannery for their leathers that starts from raw unprocessed hide to finished shell cordovan.

The tanning process starts as horse hides are brought into the tannery in a raw state. They are then inspected for damaged and unwanted areas to be trimmed even before beginning the tanning process.  Then, hides are salted to prevent decay. Next is to remove any remaining hairs on the hide. In this process, the hide is loaded into mixers and undergoes another process of removing the remaining animal flesh on them.

The following process is separating the leather parts. The hide is cut into two pieces to get the shell cordovan, and the remaining parts undergo a different tanning process. The horse butt is then shaved to reveal the membrane area where the shell is located. It will have its first time application of greases and oils used in the tannery and will take a good week to dry. However, drying time will also adjust depending on the temperature and humidity of the tannery. After drying, the shell is oiled and is left for 90 days to age. 

Application of colors using aniline dye will be the next step. Aniline dye is applied by hand and gives your leather an additional color while maintaining its natural traits. An optional step if you want to have a glossy finish is the process for a glazed look. Using an old-fashioned glazing jack, the glass rod is rubbed to the leather back and forth to create a shiny, polished look. 

Grading the leather comes last. The leathers are graded not according to their quality, but grading just means indicating the cuttable size of the leather. 

There are six available shell cordovan leather colors that you can use for your projects. The first one is the Natural Shell Cordovan, which undergoes a six-month dye process with no additional color added to preserve its natural colors. However, this shade darkens over time with increased sunlight exposure.

Whiskey and Brandy Shell Cordovan are very similar in color. They are darker than natural shell cordovan when newly produced. They also create a beautiful patina over time with years of use. 

The most loved shell cordovan is the Color 8 Shell Cordovan. Its tanning formula dates back to 1905 and hasn’t been changed to this day. It is one of the most iconic cordovan colors of deep brown with hints of reddish burgundy.

Navy Shell Cordovan is a rarely available shade of deep blue color with vibrant tones under bright light. And lastly, Black Shell Cordovan features a classic glossy black. Its undyed sides maintain the leather’s original color and will darken beautifully over time. 

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Only a Few Tanners Have Knowledge in Tanning Shell Cordovan

The necessary process of tanning the horsehide to become a quality shell cordovan leather takes up so much time and effort. It takes an expert in the tanning industry to accomplish this task. Also, laws about animal brutality and hunting are becoming more strict. That is why only a few tanneries produce this leather.

Some of the most known tanneries in the world producing shell cordovan leather are Horween in the United States, Maryam, Comipel, and Rocado in Italy, Lis Royal in Argentina, Clayton & Sons in the UK, and Shinki Hikaku in Japan.

Shell Cordovan Improves Its Quality as It Ages

One measure of quality is the product’s life span. Shell Cordovan is exceptionally durable. Its pores are not visible to the naked eye and make good material for durable leather. It also has a water-resistant trait that makes it safe from any moisture it may contact. 

Creasing is one of the effects of prolonged use of leather products. When leather is bent repeatedly, the material cracks and creates creases, this causes the start of product deterioration. Well, Shell cordovan does not crease. The leather material only ripples when bent and does not leave any marks on the leather, making it look flawless all the time. That is why men are crazy about cordovan shoes; they stay good-looking and classy as they age.

Shoes made of shell cordovan are often called ‘self-shining shoes’ because of their gloss that doesn’t seem to fade even after years of use. Contrary to fading, it develops a beautiful patina over time which makes the product more appealing.

Horween leather is priced from $150-$400, and Shinki Hikaku costs $200-$400, depending on the size and color you prefer for your projects. 

Common Leather Projects Made of Shell Cordovan

Shell Cordovan leather is best used in small leather goods. Not because it is not flexible and cannot cater to larger products, but because the harvested shell from the horse butt is often small in size, making it fit for small leather goods. However, some large-scale shells once in a while are used for more oversized products such as bags and boots.

Shell Cordovan is a Staple in Producing Fine Men’s Shoes

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Shoes are the number one product that shell cordovan is known for. The hide has a perfect size and shapes for footwear. It does not crack and leaves creases even after being bent in everyday use. 

Another plus for shell cordovan as shoe leather is its glossy appearance; it stays looking new for a long time. The durability of this leather is exceptional. That is why they sell out very quickly and are always in limited production and high demand. 

Cordovan leather does not stretch over time like any other leather, so it ensures a long-term fit. Known brands selling shell cordovan shoes are Alden, Allen Edmonds, Viberg, Carmina,  and Rancourt.

Stay Stylish with a Shell Cordovan Wallet

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Stylish wallets are also a fantastic product that shell cordovan offers. This leather is ideal for the manner of coming in and out of the pocket because it makes the leather stay glossy and finished. It has a natural polishing effect which is very good for the leather to remain vibrant. Furthermore, moisture from the body actually accelerates the development of a beautiful patina as it ages. Shell cordovan wallets are absolutely designed and built to last.

Other known brands selling cordovan wallets are Horween, Ashland, and Lotus & Layne, which are dedicated to producing quality products that are great value for your money.

Razor Strops Made of Shell Cordovan Produces Sharp Edges

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Back in the old age, razor strops made shell cordovan a popular leather. This traditional use of shell cordovan is one of the turning points that made this leather be used for other products. 

As shell cordovan is highly scratch-resistant, it sharpens straight-edged razors and knives with its very slick characteristic. However, it may take four to six months of daily use and sharpening for the leather to fully break in and give you good results. 

Known brands selling shell cordovan razor strops are Ezra Arthur, Burrfection, and Bison, which produce the best-selling Russian leather strop.

Bags Made from a Scarce Source of Shell

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Most of the luxury bags in the market are made of shell cordovan. They are those products that leather lovers would aim for despite their high price and minimal production. Truly one of those collector’s items that you must have. 

Shell cordovan bags are made from large full-sized perfect shells, which are very limited in number. Most shell cordovan products are smaller because it is hard to obtain a full-sized shell from its limited sources.

One good thing about these bags is that they have fewer seams. Seams are limited because the size of the shell is big enough for a whole bag, meaning you’ll have seamless bags with guaranteed durability.

Shell cordovan bags are indeed an heirloom item. This beautiful and very durable bag is meant to be used for many years and develops a beautiful patina, a sign of ageless beauty for leathers. 

Determining Shell Cordovan among Other Leather: So You Won’t Waste Your Money for a Fake One

People know that shell cordovan products are expensive but what they don’t know is that they can easily be faked. So knowing how to identify a genuine shell cordovan will save you from wasting your money on an imitation. 

The first factor to look for in a genuine shell cordovan is the color. This leather displays fullness and richness of color, an intense natural tone that changes slightly based on the room’s lighting. 

Another remarkable characteristic of shell cordovan leather is its resistance to creasing. The leather does not break when bent because of the dense material of the horse butt. A shell cordovan shoe does not form any micro-creasing but instead creates gentle rolls from being bent and used every day. 

Take note of these words when shopping for shell cordovan leather and products. “Cordovan” means a color similar to burgundy; it is not a shell cordovan leather. “Shell cordovan” is the leather from horsehide, a genuine, expensive, and durable leather for your projects. 

A corrected grain calfskin leather shoe might be mistaken for a shell cordovan because of its flawless appearance, especially if you buy a new one. A new calfskin leather shoe looks very similar to a shell cordovan, where the leather skin does not display any creases because it has never been used. Take special attention to the details of the product you are buying to ensure that you purchased the right one that you desire. 

The last factor you should look for is the part of the shoes where laces are placed. Tension from pulling the shoelaces creates waves on the leather surface, but it does not display any damage even after years of use. Shell cordovan model numbers are also displayed on the inside part of the product, so you should check for that. 

Taking Care of Your Expensive Shell Cordovan Goods

In this section, I will be discussing some basic procedures on how to care for your expensive shell cordovan shoes. Take note that every maintenance procedure varies depending on your preference. Some may want to just brush their shoes to maintain their natural trait, while others opt to use waxes and oils to enhance the product’s appearance. Either way, those two methods are both acceptable and effective care treatments for your goods.

Materials and Supplies Needed

Polish Products

  • Neutral cream
  • Water-resistant cream
  • Paste/ wax (optional)


  • Horsehair brush
  • Pig bristle

Basic Procedures in Shell Cordovan Care and Maintenance

The maintenance of a shell cordovan product, especially shoes, still depends on how often they are worn. It can be after around 10-15 wearings or every after use. The care for these products also depends on the owner’s preference to use chemicals or just brush them for a natural look. 

There are five steps to follow in this care and maintenance. First off is preparing the leather by brushing it with pig bristle then horsehair to remove all the dirt and dust accumulated from its constant use. 

The cleaning features an application of a neutral cream using a clean cloth or cotton. This cream serves as a mild cleaner to remove the remaining dirt and provide gentle conditioning to the leather. Rub it in a circular motion applying minimal pressure to the leather. Then, let it sit for 5- 10 minutes and brush it again using pig bristle. Repeat the brushing now using the horsehair to even out oils from the neutral cream.

Conditioning comes next. Apply water-resistant cream using your fingers in a circular motion with minimal pressure. These products are non-toxic, so there is no need to be wearing protective gloves when applying them. A water-resistant cream has a higher ratio of conditioning oils and a low solvent base with minimal soft waxes that help maintain its shiny and water-resistant trait. After applying the cream, let it sit for another 3-5 minutes.

Brushing with horsehair and pig bristle comes next. Brush the leather with horsehair on both sides, then repeat using a pig bristle. Make sure to even out all the oils accommodated from the cream used earlier. 

Finish it off by applying a small amount of water to the horsehair brush if you want a shinier finish. A dull appearance will be first displayed when brushing but continue to reveal its inner shine coming from the oils and waxes.

Shell cordovan leather has denser pores than other leather, so they do not absorb oils that quickly. Make sure to provide ample time for the oils and cream to absorb by brushing it gently. If you are not satisfied or you want more shine, you can repeat the whole process. 


Leather products made of shell cordovan indeed stand up for their expensive yet very durable trait. The supply of leather to make products may be scarce, but that is what makes shell cordovan more valuable; its rare, unique, and rigorous process of tanning that secures a tough leather material that lasts years and can be passed on to generations. Truly a shell cordovan is an heirloom item you wouldn’t want to miss having. 

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