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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Shagreen

Discover the touchy reputation and feel of this textured, exotic leather.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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