The Endearing Beauty of Shagreen

One of the things I love about antiques is exploring the materials. While styles are always changing year to year and from country to country, a lot of the techniques and materials pop up in different places at different times.

One of my favorites has always been shagreen.

You’ve probably felt it, even if you didn’t know the name. It’s a leather made from the skin of the stingray, and it has beautiful little granular bits spaced all through it. It almost looks like little enamel beads embedded in the leather, so it can be very jewel-like. Most shagreen, especially the antique stuff, is dyed with green vegetable dye, but in Asia the most valuable pieces are pure white. (A crazy thing I discovered when I started researching it a bit: the “green” in the name doesn’t come from the color. It’s from the French “chagrin” which came from a Turkish word meaning “horse’s rump,” since it’s similar to that very tough leather.)

Shagreen is very strong, so it’s as practical as it is pretty. In places where you want the look of leather but not the slipperiness, it’s the perfect choice. It has been used for the handles and hilts of Japanese swords and the grips Chinese bows for thousands of years, and you’ll find it used as a grip surface on antique microscopes and opera glasses from Europe. It also has a good degree of waterproofness (you might have guessed that, since it’s stingray) and wears well, so it’s used on handheld pieces like toiletry sets, equipment cases, and clutch-sized purses, and even on bigger things like suitcases, books, and tabletops.

I really like the great Art Deco pieces from the ’20s and ’30s, most of which are small snuff boxes or toiletry pieces. I started collecting shagreen because I love the texture, the feel of the skin, and the variation in colors. I have lots of small pieces and they are so interesting to simply hold and admire.

There are two things you need to look out for when shopping for shagreen. One is that there is lots of faux-shagreen on the market, usually just standard leather stamped with a shagreen-like pattern, but sometimes simply patterned vinyl. You’ll be able to tell the difference by pressing on those jewel-like dots with a fingernail — if they’re harder than the surrounding material, it’s real. Eventually, you’ll learn to recognize the difference just by variations in the dye.

The other thing is customs officers. Because shagreen looks a little like lizard or shark skin, you may run into a border guard that wants to confiscate contraband from your checked luggage. If your pieces get impounded, you can tell the agents that modern shagreen is farmed, and that old shagreen is, well, old, but good luck with that if you’re trying to make a connection in Miami. Best to leave your shagreen jewelry case at home when you travel.

Many, many years ago in London, I bought the most beautiful pair of shagreen picture frames with sterling silver crests, and they cost me a bundle. I kept them for a long time, but like so many other things that have passed through my hands I eventually let them go. They sold to someone in Australia who clearly knew what they were worth, and also knew the problem with customs. Rather than try to ship them to Australia, we waited until he was on business in LA and I sent them to the Peninsula Hotel so he could “smuggle” them back in his suitcase. A little tissue paper and a Crate & Barrel bag will go a long way in getting a great piece past some horse’s rump of a customs agent.

 

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