What’s something that a donkey and sting ray have in common? Aside from their shared designation into the category of vertebrate animals, interestingly skins taken from both animals are referred to as shagreen. It is seemingly unusual that two very different kinds of animal should share a common name when we talk about their hides, as Honoré de Balzac wrote in 1831;
‘The difference between Galuchat and chagrin, Monsieur, is the same as that between the sea and land, between fish and quadrupeds’ (Balzac 1831).
At this stage, it’s helpful to understand the difference in terms and also consider the root of the word shagreen. In the 17th century, the first ‘shagreen’ was in reference to embossed equine (donkey, mule, onager, horse) leather or parchment known as ‘saghari’ in Persian or ‘sagri’ in Turkish. This material was very popular owed to the use of it on objects owned by high-ranking members of society and it was readily traded throughout Europe from regions around the Caspian Sea. This material became known as shagreen (English), chagrin (French), schagren (German), seijgrin (Dutch) in Europe. Since the 13th century in Asia, namely Japan, an unusual and attractive hide from the skins of rays and sharks featured in the construction of furniture and weaponry. By the 16th century, this material was becoming trendy among Europeans and furniture constructed with ray and sharkskin was regularly imported from Asia. In the later 17th century, the hides were being shipped as a raw material to be used by European artisans. This became known as shagreen as well, this shared name could be referral to fact they both have a rough texture or perhaps the fish shagreen was piggy-backing off the popularity of the already well-established embossed equine shagreen. To make matters more confusing, in the 18th century a French casemaker known as Jean-Claude Galuchat used ray and sharkskin shagreen so often in his creations, that the material has also been referred to Galuchat, see the previous quote…
As can be seen from the images above, the two materials have fantastic, beautiful surfaces (quite notably different despite the shared name…) and the objects they adorn are similarly very attractive. Now that we’ve covered words, names and origins we can move onto manufacturing methods!
Ray and sharkskin shagreen
Rays and sharks are types of cartilaginous fish (basically no bones, only cartilage). Their skin is covered with dermal denticles which are very similar to teeth, a central pulpy cavity is surrounded by dentine, with a thin top layer of enamel-like material. The dermal denticles (or placoid scales) are very hard, hard enough that they have been used in woodworking to shape wood!
The skin is soaked in warm water for several days, the flesh removed, the hide then stretched and left to dry- much like parchment. The material is very durable and waterproof. The untanned hides were often shaved down to create a smooth surface and were frequently dyed. The skin takes on more of the dye than the denticles, highlighting them and creating the distinctive surface pattern recognisable in rayskin shagreen. The skin itself is very thin and where the skin was translucent sometimes coloured papers were adhered behind.
Working with the material requires great skill and patience, it is very hard to cut through due to the denticles and it is difficult to hide seams when applying to surfaces. To overcome this, shagreen workers in Japan would attach the shagreen to the substrate, apply hot water and leave the denticles to decay. They could then be easily removed, cleaned and scattered on top, this meant that the seams could be effectively covered.
We can distinguish between ray and sharkskin by looking closely at the denticles. Rayskin is usually thicker with larger, rounder denticles, not regularly arranged, with the largest scales along the spine. Sharks denticles are arranged in regular rows, in the direction of the tail and are much smaller than with rayskin.
Moving back onto dry land with equine shagreen, we begin with the hide of a donkey, mule, horse, onager taken from the back end of the animal. The skin is soaked, dehaired, degreased and left to dry while stretched on a frame. Seeds are then applied to the surface, impressed and the skins are left to dry. During this process the collagen fibres (the protein that makes up the skin) are under stress, they want to shrink toward each other while drying but can’t due to the tension. As a result, the fibres move as close to each other which leaves them parallel to each other. This structure is what allows the material to resist degradation without tanning the hide.
Now we have a skin that has a series of seed-shaped impressions on its surface. The skin is then scrapped flat, leaving the recesses created by the seeds behind. Now the magic happens! The skin is soaked once again in water and it begins to swell, the recesses swell more than the surrounding skin due to the increased fibre material at the bottom of the indentations and they turn into small bumps! Lye is also included in the water as alkalinity encourages swelling.
At this stage it is possible to alum taw the skin or apply a tannin if desired; historic sources suggest that fat from sheep is applied, which can also be burnished. The alum and tannins can help to retain the small swollen bumps.
Despite the connection drawn above and the shared name, the skins themselves are very different in appearance and physical composition. Nevertheless, it is interesting to think that for centuries their skins were bedfellows and sat together as the most luxurious skins, decorating the finest objects. This perception was so prevalent in fact that in Balzac’s 1831 book, ‘La Peau de chagrin’, a piece of equine chagrin had magical powers that granted the wisher their every desire…
If interested, you can read more here:
De Vries, H. The Identification of Shagreen on Bookbindings as Leather or Parchment. Icon Book & Paper Group https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp-_QiWCmPc
De Balzac, H. 1977 ‘La Peau de Chagrin’. Penguin Classics: London.
Gopfrich, J. 1999 ‘The granulated donkey?’ Shagreen: Some aspects of conservation. ICOM Committee for Conservation 12th Triennial Meeting, Lyon, 29 August – 3 September 1999. James & James Ltd.
Silverman, C. 2016 Shagreen: The history and conservation of decorative ray skin in furniture. Proceedings for the 13th International Symposium on Wood and Furniture Conservation, Amsterdam, November 2016.