Due to the similarity of its name, the origin of this leather is often mistakenly linked to the Spanish city of Córdoba, when during the Caliphate (from the 7th to the 10th Century) those tanners called Cordovans appeared. They dealt exclusively in the treatment of goat hide, in order to obtain pieces of leather that were distinguished by their great flexibility and brightness. This has nothing to do with the type of leather we see today, when we use the term Shell Cordovan. The latter is made of horse hide, specifically from the lining of the rump or hindquarters, hence the reference to the English term "Shell", which in Latin translates to "pony's hips".
Its origin dates to the end of the 19th Century in France, where the consumption of equine meat began to spread throughout the area. Due to an increase in the availability of horse hides it began to become profitable for European tanners to include this type of leather among the others already in use.
The initial use of this vegetable-tanned leather was as a strap for sharpening knives, because of its strength, stiffness and durability. Until their export by European emigrants to the United States the tanning processes there at that time could not produce leather that was sufficiently flexible to be suitable for these uses and applications.
However this leather is unrivalled in its exclusivity. France and Canada are two of its major producers, and its production is extremely limited and monitored. Furthermore, the treatment of this skin becomes progressively more difficult resulting in small pieces that are not flexible enough to be easily worked with.
Unlike cow and other hides of bovine origin, horse hide is tanned and worked as Split leather, and not as Full Grain leather, so that the result obtained is a smooth surface with a distinct natural sheen, and devoid of the appearance of pores, since they remain on the inside. These differences lend special qualities to this leather that make it incomparable to any other. Its folding and wrinkling pattern is totally different, occurring in a wavy form and causing the area to appear slightly lighter. Interestingly, those who know how to care for this valuable and exclusive leather often use a bone on its surface to compress, shape and set it, although one of its great advantages is that it requires only low maintenance to retain its distinct polished appearance.
Another of the great qualities of this raw material is that its original colour can vary with the light and even within parts of the same piece. Further, the vegetable tanning process causes its surface to change and evolve easily. Finally, its resistance to wear and tear is above average, and any indication of its age may be dismissed by taking a rag and giving it a quick rub.
Those in the know recognise that this choice of leather is not for everyone. Many may not understand its behaviour, others may not appreciate its value, and yet others may not even be able to tell it apart from other leathers. Nevertheless, those who appreciate these qualities will value its merits and advantages.
In Spain there are few who venture to work with this type of skin, especially in the small craftsmen community, due to its difficult in handling, the poor performance of its pieces, and how expensive they are. Even so, these are factors that only add to the aura of exclusivity that has always surrounded this magnificent leather.
Would you like to give it a try?