I recently got the chance to work with a leather I've been dreaming of for probably a decade or more. Since early days I've been hoping to find a leather that combines the features of the two big favorites: Natural Chromexcel and Shell Cordovan. Turns out Horween occasionally makes a leather that does exactly that:
These are horse butts which include the dense subcutaneous layer that's used to make shell cordovan, but it also still has the top grain layer, which is shaved off when they make shell. It's finished in the chromexcel tannage, with just oils and no pigment, so all of the hide's features show through. It really is a dream leather for me personally.
Let's talk about shell cordovan. Shell is a "luxury" leather. Part of that is marketing hype, but part of it is based on real qualities that the material possesses: it's dense, uniform, flexible, durable. Shell is a treat to work with, it's consistent and it cuts beautifully. The supply is limited (though not quite as limited as we're sometimes led to believe). Since it's subcutaneous, it doesn't have a grain surface like conventional leather, and that's why it's typically given a high-gloss glazed finish*.
I don't personally love the glazed finish**, I like a little more grit on my leather, so this stuff checks almost all of the boxes. Almost because I wish the thickness was more uniform (but that's my problem and not yours) and I wish the availability was better.
It took me years to discover it in the vast & mercurial Horween lineup, and even more years to actually get my hands on it. Since it shares the same limited and high-demand source material as Horween's iconic shell cordovan, that means it will rarely get made, and when it does, the cost has to account for the shells embedded in it. It's over 4x the cost per square foot compared to Chromexcel, which is already on the pricey side. By and large, it seems people prefer gloss over grit, so this stuff will remain an oddity.
It's been a treat to work with this stuff. With this second batch of wallets, my supply is nearly exhausted and I'm not sure when I'll see it again.
* Unglazed shell exists, and I think it's a really compelling leather. It has a matte finish and some nice funk that is absent from classic shell. I have a little bit of it locked away in storage, I think.
** There are some (grained) glazed leathers that I like. The effect and be really pretty, it crackles as it breaks in, but shell doesn't really do this, since there's no grain to break. The factory glazing process is amazing, it involves a polished glass cylinder and an extremely dangerous machine. Punch "glazing jack" into a video search to see it happen.
*** Here in the secret third footnote I just want to say that I'm not really into the trend of reversed/splattered/marbled shell cordovan either. I understand the impulse, but calculated funk isn't funk. The grace of character can't be created, it has to be incidental. Acquired, then embraced. Leathers like this give me the same feeling as sanded jeans or distressed furniture or any other form of manufactured authenticity. Just take the long way home!