What is Cordovan and how to take care of it


Where does It come from?

Many of you will have heard about Cordovan leather and might even own Cordovan shoes or are thinking of buying their first pair. In this article we want to explain to you everything about Cordovan leather, where it comes from, how it is made and how to properly take care of it.

Cordovan leather is essentially horse leather, but not every leather that comes from a horse is Cordovan. Only the so called shells or butts, which are the rear quarters of the horse are turned into Cordovan, hence the often used name Shell Cordovan. These parts of the animal are used because of the very dense fibre structure that allows for the characteristic durability and strength of cordovan leather. This also explains why Cordovan is so precious and comes with a hefty price tag. From a relatively big animal you can only produce shell cordovan big enough for one pair of shoes.

This illustrates how little of the skin can be used for Shell Cordovan. Source: cordovan.co

How is it made?

The production process of Cordovan differs in many ways from that of normal smooth leather like for example calf or kid. The production time is with around 6 months quite long and involves many labour-intense steps where a lot of handwork is involved.

The skins are even tanned in tanning pits, something that you would usually find in the making process of sole leather, the leather for the upper part of the shoe normally is tanned in spinning drums. Shell Cordovan is a vegetable tanned leather that is treated with oils during the tanning process, this creates the unique feel that cordovan has. It has the touch of vegetable-tanned leather that is slightly „spongy“ and not as stiff as chrome-tanned leather but also has an oily touch because of its high oil content.

These two steps in the tanning process create the unique feel of Cordovan, yet the unique look is created by something that might surprise you. Unlike with most leathers, what you see when you look at the smooth and shiny surface of Cordovan is not the grain side of the skin but actually the flesh side which has been finished and polished so intensely that the fibre structure has become as smooth as the grain side.

In a process where the skin is glazed with a large steel wheel the fibers are so compressed that the surface becomes smooth and is then finished with waxes. The most famous tannery for Cordovan leather is Horween based in the USA but you can also find great Cordovan leather from the Japanese tanneries Ogawa and Shinki Hikaku or from Italy. Knowing these special characteristics of Cordovan we can now have a look at what you have to look out for when taking care of Cordovan leather.

Here you can see how the surface is glazed using a heavy steel wheel. Source: cordovan.co

How to take care of Cordovan

We found out that Cordovan leather has a high content of oil and is finished in a very unique way. This also determines that the shoe care you apply to Cordovan has to be designed exactly to meet these characteristics to not damage the leather. The Saphir Medaille D’Or Cordovan Cream has been composed of ingredients which meet exactly these requirements. It contains genuine neats-foot oil which penetrates deep into the leather and maintains the oil content to prevent it from drying out.

With the contained beeswax and high concentration of colour pigments you can easily restore the characteristic look of the leather and the solvents used in this cream are carefully chosen so that they will not damage the original finish. In general Cordovan is a quite resilient leather but it requires regular care. With its high oil content it is not too affected by water therefore it is important to maintain this oil content.

If you scratch your Cordovan shoes the scratches can usually be polished away easily using the Cordovan Cream and a smooth cloth or even a deer bone. Just apply a bit of pressure to press the fibers back into place. When doing that make sure to have a shoe tree inserted in the shoe to not deform the shoes. If you want to polish your Cordovan shoes to a high shine we recommend the Medaille D’Or Mirror Gloss since it has a high concentration of hard waxes and lower content of solvents.

Remember that solvents might damage the original finish of the leather therefore the Mirror Gloss with its low content of solvents is the right product to bring Cordovan to a high shine.

An interesting take on Cordovan is this pair of shoes made by Gaziano & Girling, where the Horween Shell Cordovan has an embossed grain. Source: gazianogirling.com

Cordovan Tassel-Loafers by Crockett Jones. Source: crockettandjones.com

Voilà we hope we could give you a good overview on Cordovan leather and how to take care of it. If you have any questions do not hesitate to contact us on saphir.com or send us a message on Instagram on our accounts @saphir_medailledor and @saphir_official.

Written by Louis Lampertsdörfer (@louislampertsdoerfer)