Cordovan leather vs Shell Cordovan

A lot has been said about ‘cordovan’, and a lot of it is true, but a lot of it is false as well.

First of all, 'Cordovan' leather does not necessarily indicate that it is leather from a horse. Instead, Cordovan derives its name from Cordoba in Spain, where the Moors had settled down in the 8th Century. The Moors, of Berber and Muslim descent, had perfected a form of tanning where the hide (from goat, horse or any other animal) is “tawed” with alum (aluminium potassium sulphate) making it very soft and supple. Combined with Kermes, one of the oldest natural red colouring pigments, this would result in leather prized for its bright red colours. However, since the skins are merely soaked in the alum liquids, the result is only a semi-tanned form of leather, easily damaged by water and moisture. 

In contrast to cordovan leather, shell cordovan is a vegetable tanned leather that comes exclusively from a horse butt. The outstanding characteristics of horsehide from the butt area lies in the presence of a dense mass of collagen fibres, so compact as to render leather from the butt naturally waterproof and nearly air tight. The position of the hide containing the dense mass of fibres is known as the shell. In the late 19th century, shell cordovan was sold under the name “Spiegelware”, which translates to “mirror goods”. If cared for properly, it can shine similar to a mirror. How exactly you should care for shell cordovan, we will save for a later blog post!

So there you have it, the difference between cordovan leather, and shell cordovan.


A pair of genuine Horween Shell Cordovan shoes from a customer of ours. Click here to see how you can order your own MTO Vass Cordovan shoes.