I posted an article recently looking at three of Crockett & Jones shades of shell cordovan - dark brown, whisky and burgundy shell - and wanted to do a quick follow-up to discuss what makes the material so appealing to enthusiasts. I'll also highlight the manner that each point can be seen as a pro or a con, depending on your viewpoint.
So the first word to get out of the way in this discussion is of course: patina. In this context defined as:
a surface appearance of something grown beautiful especially with age or use
While being a word that risks overuse in online discussion, it's very pertinent with shell cordovan. Patina (the naturally formed kind, not the artistically applied kind) is the accumulation of years of moisture, light, heat, dirt, scuffs, polishing and brushing.
If you enjoy the development of patina on a pair of shoes, then a well cared for pair of shell shoes will get better with age. Looking at a brand new pair of cordovan shoes, it can be hard to see what all the fuss is about - the finish can seem plasticky and the leather itself stiff. But the gradual development of patina over the months and years creates a sense of satisfaction, perhaps even connection, with the shoes that is hard to quantify.
Over time this patina manifests as a deep, rich and multi-toned collection of colour and shade that is simply impossible to replicate with other materials. The flip-side, of course, is that some people feel that well-worn shell shoes just look old and a bit knackered and worn out.
Roll with it
The easiest way to visually identify shell (especially useful when scrutinising eBay photography) is that shell doesn't form the hairline wrinkles, creases and cracks that calf leather does at the point of flex. Instead, it forms "rolls", easily visible on the ankle shaft of this pair of Harlech boots from Crockett & Jones.
That's not to say that shell is somehow ageless - some people may find the rolls of shells more visually disruptive than the creases in high-quality calf leather. This is one of the areas that I would say shell is neither better or worse than other leathers, simply different.
It just clicks
The colour variation on a pair of shell shoes is apparent in pretty much every photo here. Some of this variation is due to the development of the material over time and the formation of patina, but some of it ties into the last point of the article - shell is an expensive material, and so makers will want to use as much as possible from the hides they buy.
Where leather in high-end shoes is typically clicked (cut) to be carefully colour and texture matched across both shoes for as much consistency as possible, shell shoes may well end up with some quite dramatic variation between the pieces of leather used. Good makers will still try to assemble the pair for consistency between each shoe, but it's not unusual to have noticeable differences in the overall shade even fresh out of the box.
Take care and shine on
Caring for shell requires a different approach to other types of leather, but one of its most endearing qualities is that its density makes it easy to get shell up to a near-mirror finish through some vigorous buffing with a brush or cloth. This is the source of the complaints that shell can look "plasticky" or like a bookbinder or patent leather.
You can use products like Saphir Renovateur creme or coloured polishes without too much worry on shell, but broadly it's a material that can still look good without excessive product applied.
The most obvious "weakness" when it comes to caring for shell is that moisture will leave distinctive spotting marks on the leather's surface, which tend to be more pronounced than calf leather. These may appear alarming, but simply leaving the shoes to dry then vigorously buffing and brushing will eliminate most of these.
Shelling out the cash
The last point isn't really about the material per se so much as the economy around it. Shell is a scarce material - you don't get a lot of it per horsehide, and so shoes and boots made from shell tend to be expensive. Crockett & Jones are the most consistent UK makers for shell - their shell shoes start around the £700 mark, substantially above their main grade range and above most of the Handgrade range.
Those looking to get into collecting would do well to research Alden, a maker generally regarded as the premier American shell shoemakers. Alden isn't easy to obtain for Europeans but is plentiful on eBay if you can figure out your sizing. Note that prices for even used shell remain quite competitive, moreso for rarer shades that really do tend to appeal to collectors.