Shagreen has been a luxurious decorative material for many centuries, though it is perhaps most closely associated with the Art Deco era. Signifying luxury and exoticism, this often controversial material is once more in vogue.
Shagreen typically refers to the skin of rays, sharks or dogfish, all of which are cartilaginous fish with a smoothly pebbled texture. It has been used for centuries as a mild abrasive, like sandpaper, in smoothing wood and metal.
Supposedly, ray skin has been prized since the time of the pharaohs, and during the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC - AD 220). It has been better documented and preserved since it began appearing on the sword hilts and armor of Japanese samurai during the Middle Ages, in part because its texture provided a reliable grip.
Europe began importing shagreen-covered objects during the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the mid-1700s, a tanner in Paris became the first European shagreen expert (his name, Galluchat, has been transformed into galuchat, the French word for shagreen.) Louis XV's most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour, was the dominant patron of Monsieur Galluchat, and it was said that a week didn't go by when she didn't buy some new object, often in shagreen.
Shagreen was often imitated in more accessible materials. Craftsmen would insert seeds into untanned leather, and then pressing the seeds into the leather before discarding them. They would then typically dye the reverse side green to approximate the authentic skin. The word "shagreen" supposedly comes from the Turkish word "sagri," which refers to the rump or haunches of a mammal, presumably used in approximating the distinctive texture of sting rays.
Shagreen became a popular material again in Europe during the Art Deco era, when designers sought to fuse the French tradition of luxury with exotic and precious materials. Designers like Clément Rousseau and Jean-Michael Frank used shagreen to create their most sumptuous furniture (images 4 & 6).
There is some controversy about whether shagreen is an environmentally correct material. While some sources claim the use of the material may threaten the species, designers who use the material insist that their practice does no harm. At least two prominent companies that use shagreen, Ironies and R&Y Augousti, claim that they use only sustainably-sourced remnants from the fishing industry (images 9 & 10).
Most extant antiques with shagreen are smaller objects, like glasses cases and sword hilts (images 2 & 3), but you can really see how durable the material is, through centuries of both use and neglect. Today, you can find all sorts of objects in both real and faux shagreen, including tables, decorative boxes and picture frames.
Images: 1 Detail of a tableto by Jean-Michel Frank, via Paris Originals; 2 Qing sword from the Qianlong period, sold at Sotheby's in 2002 for about $74,000; 3 Etui made in China circa 1900, via Ruby Lane Antiques; 4 and 5 Small 1912 shagreen commode by Iribe and a 1921 chair by Clement Rousseau, both at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, via Michael Hampton's blog; 6 Shagreen lipstick case by Cartier, circa 1930, sold by Sotheby's in 2006 for about $750; 7 Jean-Michel Frank cabinet from the early 1930s, sold by Christie's in 2000 for about $746,000; 8 Karl Springer table from the 1970s, available from Craig Van Den Brulle on 1st Dibs; 9 Shagreen nesting tables from Ironies; 10 R&Y Augousti Metal Circle Desk, available from Lille for $5,300.
Sources: There is a beautiful French book on shagreen by Jean Perfettini called Le galuchat, published a few years ago. But I like this online history from The Leather Connection.