Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Shagreen
If you’ve ever thought that the word “shagreen” sounds similar to “chagrin,” you’re not alone. Shagreen is pronounced the same and derived from the French chagrin. That word is related to the Italian zigrino, derived from the Turkic sagri—literally, "a horse's ass." It makes perfect sense that it translates to anxiety, vexation, embarrassment, or annoyance. How this definition came to be associated with the popular exotic leather used in luxury is another story altogether. Nest Casa delves into this unique skin and finds chic uses that won't make anyone blush.
What is Shagreen?
The skin has to have an unusually rough or granular surface to qualify as shagreen leather, also making it ideal as a non-slip surface. Think of the handle of a sword or dagger. Historically, it was made from the back and rear of a horse or onager (a wild ass living in the Middle East and western China). This early form of shagreen was made by embedding plant seeds into freshly skinned hides. Pressure, usually by trampling, was applied, leaving the dry skin pebbled with indentations. It's feasible to think that the objective was to form a material that was especially easy to grip.
By the 17th and early 18th centuries, this skin was collected from sharks and stingrays. These leathers are covered with small, round, calcified scales that are coated in dentine, which is found below tooth enamel. The size of the scales ranges depending on the age and size of the animal it comes from. The scales are ground down, further achieving a rougher surface. Between these two animals, the product is quite different. Sharks have finer scales. In comparison, stingrays have bigger, rounded scales that are more commonly associated with the triangular section down the middle of the skin. Shagreen contains the word “green” because dye is applied to the skin’s underside to emphasize the appearance of the scales.
Shagreen's Past in Interiors
This technique using green dye was popular in Europe. The Japanese preferred the pureness of white shagreen. Jean-Claude Galluchat, a master leather craftsman in the court of Louis XV of France, created a method to soften the skins using pumice. This helped expand the area of application as the skin was more pliable. Therefore, shagreen is also referred to as galuchat (dropping one “L”) after the leathersmith.
Madame de Pompadour, the official mistress of Louis XV, was a respected voice to the King and court. She counseled in matters of diplomacy, literature, art, and architecture. (The Petit Trianon in Versailles was built in her honor.) She adored the material. With her endorsement, it quickly became popular among the French aristocrats, used on everyday items such as book bindings, small cases, and change purses. By the 19th century, tiny boxes, décor, picture frames, shoes, and glasses cases were crafted from the exotic skin.
It should be remembered that Asia deserves the credit for introducing this treasured skin to the Europeans. Different types of Japanese swords had been covered in untanned shagreen. Dating back to the Qing dynasty, the Chinese used the skin to ensure the grip on composite bows.
In the 20th century, shagreen was hugely popular with designers like Clement Rousseau and Jean-Michel Frank in the Art Deco era. Their furniture in this nubby texture was all the interior style rage. The 1970s saw a resurgence when all things Art Deco were in vogue again.
Shagreen vs. Faux Shagreen
Given the recent ethical and environmental awareness, it's no surprise that people wonder if shagreen is a guilt-free leather choice. Shagreen from stingrays is not produced in the United States and its importation is regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Similarly, certain species of sharks and practices around them have also been banned, so it's best to trace the provenance of shagreen.
Fortunately, if one desires a stingray look but prefers either cow or other leather, there are plenty of ways to achieve the look without depleting cartilaginous fish populations. There are other advantages to buying faux shagreen.
First is the cost, since genuine shagreen is currently only associated with luxury goods. Faux shagreen also has the advantage of being bigger, since its size isn’t limited to an animal’s size. Thus, it’s cost-effective and practical for making large items, like dining tables and couch or bed frames.
How Shagreen Works Best
Early Asian culture had the right idea with using shagreen in small amounts on the handles of swords. In general, touches of shagreen usually work best in décor. That said, as faux shagreen works on oversized items, there are several approaches to choose from.
The interesting material works nicely on a small décor item—like a picture frame, a vide poche, or small trinket boxes—when situated next to rich woods or brushed metallics (such as brass or pearlescent shell inlays). This creates a menagerie of textures. On a medium scale, shagreen accents in the form of side tables, serving trays, and lamps make excellent conversation pieces.
When considering using a larger amount of shagreen, it’s ideal to focus the entire room’s décor around the piece. Don’t be afraid to combine textures when using bigger, bolder items made from shagreen.
Consider color as well. Shagreen—real or faux—is produced in a rainbow of intense hues that lend themselves to being centerstage in a room.