The premium is justified by its usefulness and convenience. There was an improvement in shine after treating shoes with this conditioner, and a single jar can be used for about a hundred applications.

Conditioning your shoes is the next step after cleaning them (with a cleaner or a slightly damp rag). The foundation of your leather care routine should be conditioning. Twenty-one of the twenty-five guides I read on taking care of shoes were in favor of using conditioner, while the other four either didn't mention it or gave a negative recommendation. Leather is basically flesh, and without being conditioned, it loses its pliability and begins to acquire a decidedly duller look as creases form. When leather dries out to the point where it begins to crack and flake, the damage is usually permanent.

In the absence of moisture, leather, which is essentially flesh, loses its pliability and develops creases and a generally less appealing appearance.

After reading through 20-plus-page debates about conditioner choice on menswear forums, reading shoe-care guides, speaking with leather-care experts and tanners, and conducting in-store testing with Stanley Mayes and his crew, I can say with confidence that Saphir Renovateur is worth the extra cost over Venetian Leather Balm and Lexol Leather Conditioner

leather shoe care venetian leather balm saphir renovateur comparison
On the left is leather that has been treated with Venetian Leather Balm, and on the right is leather that has been treated with Saphir Renovateur. Compare how the Renovateur side is smoother and more shiny than the Venetian-treated side, and how the hairline wrinkles on the Venetian-treated side have

There is much fanfare surrounding the purportedly miraculous nourishing properties of Renovateur for leather. Although much of that is exaggeration, both Stanley Mayes and I were pleasantly surprised by Renovateur. According to men's fashion blogger Kirby Allison of Kirby Allison's Hanger Project, Renovateur "deeply penetrates the uppers to supply the essential nutrients required to maintain the leather's optimum condition and suppleness, while preventing any drying." One of the oldest continuously operating tanneries in the United States, Horween Leathers, is run by Nick Horween, who told me that Renovateur was "a very refined product and easier to control than the Venetian."

On my Allen Edmonds Clifton bluchers, Stanley Mayes and I tried out various leather conditioners. I hadn't had them polished in about three months, and I'd only worn them a handful of times in that time because of various factors (including, but not limited to, vacation and laziness). They weren't broken or peeling, but they felt rough around the edges.

The ease of control that Nick Horween had ascribed to Renovateur became apparent to me as I watched Mayes work it into my shoe. Unlike Venetian Leather Balm, it didn't absorb into the skin and darken the area where Mayes first applied it. On the contrary, it maintained its pliability and uniformly spread across the leather. Mayes told me that he was able to get more use out of a smaller amount of Renovateur than he would have with Lexol Leather Conditioner or Venetian Leather Balm due to the product's superior spreadability. We found that Renovateur absorbed more slowly than the others, which is good because it gives less-skilled DIYers more room for error.

Mayes ran his fingers along the vamp and quarter of the shoe, where he had applied Renovateur, and remarked, "This leather feels nourished; it's polish-ready." While I was at it, I flexed and felt the vamp and quarter that had been treated with Renovateur, and found that it felt more naturally moisturized than the side that had been treated with Lexol Leather Conditioner and Venetian Leather Balm. Dryness had been reduced from the leather, and I could no longer feel as many micro-wrinkles as before.

Mayes claims that all three conditioners effectively hydrated the leather, but he and I both favored Renovateur for a number of reasons. The side treated with Lexol Leather Conditioner felt supple and hydrated, but, like the Lexol cleaner, it left a noticeable tack. Also, according to Mayes, the Lexol product didn't work as well because it didn't penetrate as deeply into the leather, so the effects won't last as long for your shoes. While Venetian Leather Balm did a good job of moisturizing the surface, both Mayes and I noticed that it left a residue that was not quite as tacky as the Lexol product's, but rather had the feel of a plasticky, artificially smooth surface, not unlike that of a laser-printed image on paper.

After comparing it to the bulk conditioner he was already using in the store, Mayes said he decided to stop testing Lexol Leather Conditioner on customers' shoes because it was inferior.

Renovateur was found to be the best home conditioner by Mayes's extended testing, despite the latter's pricier price tag. I was told by Mayes that he stopped using Lexol Leather Conditioner after he tested it on customers' shoes and found it to be subpar to the bulk conditioner he was already using in the store.

Then he sprung a surprise on me: he'd cleaned, conditioned, and polished the Allen Edmonds Cliftons I'd left behind, using Venetian Leather Balm on one shoe and Renovateur on the other. He drew my attention to the toe caps, the part of any shoe most likely to be damaged by scuffs and scratches if, for example, you dragged your toe along the sidewalk or stubbed it on the escalator's teeth. Mayes said to me as I examined my shoes' toes, "A good conditioner should fill in minor scuffs and scratches and prepare the surface to receive an even polish." ”

leather shoe care comparison
Take a look at how the shoe (right) that was treated with Saphir Renovateur compared to the shoe (left) that was treated with Venetian Leather Balm.

The pictures show that Renovateur did a much better job of removing the scuffs I'd made over the course of multiple wears (the DC Metro system is not kind to your shoes). Small wrinkles in the toe box's crease points were less noticeable on the Renovateur-treated shoe (although larger wrinkles remained on both shoes; no conditioner is a miracle worker). Mayes largely attributed this success to the superior nutrient content of Renovateur.

A small amount goes a long way, just like that expensive face cream.

Packaging was his main worry about Renovateur. It's packaged in a wide-mouthed glass jar that could easily be mistaken for high-end face cream rather than a shoe product. A small amount goes a long way, much like that fancy face cream. He said that you'd need three dimes' worth of the product to completely cover the sole of a shoe, so a dime's worth would be enough for half a shine. If you follow this formula, a 75-milliliter bottle of conditioner should last you for about 100 applications. According to Mayes, "for the price it's sold for, it's unfortunate that the wide mouth makes it possible for an overzealous person to easily kill the jar in five or so polishes." It wouldn't surprise me if someone who bought this product from me ended up being unhappy because they used too much of it. Avoiding that predicament is as simple as dabbing with Renovateur rather than pouring it out.

leather shoe care saphir renovateur venetian leather balm lexol leather conditioner comparison
Products shown are Saphir Renovateur, Venetian Leather Balm, and Lexol Leather Conditioner, from left to right.

Like Saphir Renovateur, Venetian Leather Balm has a problem with overuse because of its open-top container (albeit one that is decidedly more utilitarian-looking than the Renovateur jar). In our lab tests, Venetian Leather Balm had a consistency similar to that of a toner, while Renovateur was more like a lotion. To avoid the product absorbing unevenly into one spot and not thoroughly nourishing another, Stanley Mayes had to be careful to keep his rag moving along the shoe. The exact ingredients in Venetian Leather Balm are unknown, but I have heard several experts in the fields of shoe care and menswear speculate that it contains a stronger solvent. In actual use, Venetian Leather Balm absorbed into the leather at a faster rate than any other product; however, Mayes noted that this may have been due in part to the product's elevated level of solvent evaporating into the air at the same time.

In our testing, we found that the shampoo-bottle style packaging of Lexol Leather Conditioner made it much simpler to regulate the amount that was dispensed. Like a homemade salad dressing, the texture was neither thick nor runny, like that of a traditional lotion or Renovateur. The Lexol conditioner absorbed into the leather in a time frame that was intermediate between those of the other two products.

Experts also recommend mink oil for moisturizing shoes because its chemical composition is very similar to that of human sebum (the body's natural oil that also serves to "waterproof" our skin). Saphir Renovateur, our top pick, is a mink-oil suspension, and it's just one of many such products that can be found on the market. In contrast, we did not evaluate any additional mink-oil products for two key reasons: The most popular product containing mink oil, Renovateur, served as a stand-in for the entire category of "good" mink-oil products because of this. Second, silicone, found in many mink-oil based products, acts as an effective waterproofer by blocking up the pores of the leather; however, this prevents the leather from breathing, which results in the faster accumulation of moisture and eventual decay.