When you’re dealing with such an iconic and timeless product like Color #8 shell cordovan, sometimes it’s important to pull apart and analyze the name in order to completely understand what you’re buying as a consumer. Cordovan is a leather, but it’s also a color. How can you look at a product critically to understand exactly what you’re buying?
First you should try to determine the leather type. A leather tannery’s main function is to take a naturally occurring and infinitely variable hide, cure it so it doesn’t deteriorate, and process it into a consistent final product. The first step in achieving this is the tanning process. Chrome tanning and vegetable tanning are the two most common tanning methods in the world today. I like to think of the tanning process in terms of cooking; the first tanning is like making a brine for your Thanksgiving Day turkey. The brine gives it a great, consistent base that allows us to “flavor” more evenly and effectively later.
The second tanning step, also known as retanning, is where we impart the “flavors”-- or leather characteristics. The tanning industry as a whole has done a poor job explaining the significance of the retanning process because most people do not understand there are different types of leather. In retanning, the tannery works directly with customer’s technical requirements and can create performance characteristics to meet their needs. Football leather is the best example of this as Wilson, Nike, Spalding all require the footballs to have a great pebble depth, perfectly consistent color, and a grippy, tacky feel. The retanning process is where materials are added to the leather to impart these desired characteristics.
Shell cordovan is given a full vegetable tannage and is then retanned, a process that takes over 6 months, to create a leather that has an exceptionally soft and smooth feel, rich earth-tone colors, and a bright, glossy look. A special blend of tree bark extracts are used to pit-tan the leather and a “secret sauce” wax/oil/grease blend is hand-applied to every shell. Each are individually shaved to give a smooth feel. The shaving process is incredibly touch sensitive and needs to be done by an absolute expert. If the shell is shaved too far we can actually shave through the shell and cause a rough area. Conversely, if the shell is not shaved enough, you do not get down to the smooth surface layer of the shell. This is the process where you will see other tanneries fail because shaving is incredibly difficult to perfect. After shaving, each piece of cordovan must be sorted by shade because not every piece is appropriate for lighter colors or more vibrant colors. Once sorted, the leather goes through a brush finish machine and is swabbed with stains up to eight times. Only during this brush staining phase is the color determined. And there are a multitude of colors to choose from: Color #8, Color #4, Color #2, Navy, Whiskey, Bourbon, Cigar, Intense Blue, and Dark Cognac, to name a few.
The classic cordovan color, Color #8, has become synonymous with the leather Genuine Horween Shell Cordovan but we can also make Chromexcel, Latigo, Chromepak, Snuffed Suede, Chamois, Dublin, Essex, Cambridge, or any other leather to match color #8. In fact, we do it all of the time! I own a pair of Clarks Desert Boots in Color #8 Chromexcel and absolutely love them! Simply put, the retanning process is the first stage where the leather color begins.
The Color #8 name originated before modern marketing existed and is possibly the most sterile and bland name you could imagine. If the color were to be named today it would probably be called “oxblood” or something a bit sexier. Color names in the early 20th century were much more utilitarian. We are not entirely certain of how the name color #8 came about, but it is one of two possibilities: First, #8 could have been the name of the powder dyes that the tannery purchased. Alternatively, they could have named it for using 8 parts of dye in a mixture. Coincidentally, color #4 has half of the dye as #8, and color #2 has half of #4.
Ashland Leather sells Horween Color #8 shell cordovan products, and we try to make it pretty obvious what’s going on. They are made from Genuine Horween Shell Cordovan dyed to Color #8. Some companies might market a “Cordovan belt” that is actually a chrome-tanned leather in a burgundy color. Hopefully now the difference is more clear!
(below: Color #8 shell cordovan Johnny the Fox on top of Color #8 Horween Chromexcel)