"After reading you for about a month and looking at your photos," wrote a reader named Kate earlier this week, "I've concluded ... You are simply a leather freak. You love leather. Period." Guilty as charged. While I wouldn't say I only love leather, there's no question that it's near the top of my list. If we judge love based on action and not mere sentiment, however, there is one man whose love I can't compete with in any way, shape, or form.
Vincent Ramirez has gone where no man has gone before, and he's taken his Cambridge Pitt Minion with him. Where? To world-famous Horween Leather in Chicago, perhaps the most exalted name in the tanning business. Horween has provided leather for top-drawer shoes, bags, and even footballs. But as far as I know, they've never provided the leather for a Bible binding.
Now they have.
And it's not just any leather, either. Vincent's Pitt Minion was rebound by Mechling Books using Horween's coveted #8 shell cordovan. For a certain type of leather lover, shell cordovan is the holy grail of hides. It comes from the "fibrous flat muscle (or shell) beneath the hide on the rump of the horse" (thanks, Wikipedia!) and "is prized for its toughness, longevity, and protective qualities." The way I've always heard it explained, shell's dense, smooth grain makes it very hard-wearing. Thanks to the way it takes dye -- somewhat unevenly -- you see fascinating color variation in shell cordovan as it ages.
There are various shades of shell. The exotic colors -- with names like whiskey, cigar, and ravello -- command the highest prices. As in Bible publishing, however, the standard colors are black and burgundy (i.e., #8). It's worth pausing to note that the word "cordovan" is often used as a synonym for burgundy. I don't know whether this is because so many shell cordovan shoes come in that shade or not.
The process of creating a shell cordovan-bound Bible went something like this. Vincent visited Horween, which sells cordovan in various grades which run anywhere from 1 to 2.75 square feet in size, with price tags ranging from $62.90 all the way up to $255. He bought a square foot of #8 shell and was out the door for about $77.
Then he sent his Pitt Minion (which was already bound in brown goatskin) to Al Mechling, along with the leather. Here, he ran into a problem. In some applications, thick leather is a virtue. Not in bookbinding, where the edges must be thin enough to fold over and paste down. Shell cordovan is not a leather traditionally used in bookbinding. Before the work could be done, the leather would have to be "split" -- i.e., appropriately thinned for use in bookbinding. That would add $100 to the cost of rebinding.
Vincent was making history. He didn't expect it to come cheap. After some soul searching, he approved the expense and the work went forward. Total cost of the rebinding (not including the leather): $276.
I'm quoting these numbers to sober those of you thinking, "Hey, I need me a shell cordovan Bible!" Not counting the cost of the Pitt Minion, the price tag on this puppy was something like $353. Expensive materials requiring extra labor can the bill up fast.
Here's the result:
Mechling did a wonderful job transforming the shell cordovan into a refined cover. The raised bands on the spine, the line running around the edge of the cover, even the imprinting combine for an elegantly restrained aesthetic. Two broad, gold ribbons were added, as well. Everyone knows I'm no fan of burgundy, but there's enough color variation in the #8 to intrigue me. (And if you Google "aged #8 shell cordovan" you'll see that with use and exposure to sun, the results are even more interesting.)
Shell cordovan looks smooth from a distance. Up close, you can sometimes see the closely huddled pores. It's a smooth, shiny, reflective leather, quite pliable in the hand. Unfortunately, Vincent didn't ask me to perform any abusive testing to determine how well the new cover will hold up to wear. Judging from my experience with shell shoes and the stories others have told, I imagine it will prove incredibly durable.
Vincent's choice to have the Horween stamp visible on the inside cover is a form of homage. Some manufacturers will leave the stamp visible when making, for example, unlined shoes, to demonstrate that the leather is indeed genuine Horween shell. One result, though, is that the usual lining that would be pasted down over the corner folds isn't there:
I have to say, I quite like this. The effect is similar to having an unlined sport coat or a demonstrator fountain pen. You get to see what's usually concealed under the lining. As you can see above, the cover is now thinned sufficiently to fold the leather over. The cover is nice and flexible. (The photo also confirms that, if I've been lax in posting recently, it's not because I was getting a manicure.)
If there is one downside to the project, it's this: the Pitt Minion no longer has its typical "spring-open" bond between text block and cover. As you can see in the photo below, the book block arches out from the spine without laying flat against the cover. I'm not sure why this is, but hopefully with use the two will become one again.
I have to say, I'm very impressed with the work Mechling did on this rebind. It cost plenty, but the end result is extraordinarily attractive. Would I go and do likewise? Good question. I'm hoping to drop in on Horween over the summer, so never say never. On the other hand, I'm slow and plodding when it comes to rebinding projects. Takes me forever to decide what I want, and another forever to go forward on the project. I have to say, I love the idea of hand-selecting the leather of your choice before commissioning the project.
In the past, Bibles were bound in a wide variety of skins -- everything from seal to ostrich -- but I don't recall shell cordovan ever being used. As I said before, I think this could be a first. In my book, it's worth doing for that reason alone. I'm grateful to Vincent for taking the journey for us, and sharing the results!