What is shagreen leather?
Shagreen leather is a product from shark or stingrays. The leather has always been a part of Henry Forwood’s life. His grandmother was always a collector of past family mementos and objects. A number of these were made with, or packed in exquisite shagreen leather. She had small boxes for ‘Things’, beautiful fan boxes complete with delicate fans (always slightly damaged) and even glass cases belonging to some distant relative with rather painful looking wire glasses. Even in their slightly dilapidated state, they suggested luxury and a touch of the exotic that have remained with Henry to this day.
A bit of history of shagreen
It was the Japanese who first recognised this material and began using shagreen leather as handle coverings for their Samurai swords and scabbards in the 13th century. They continued to develop the leather and by the 16th century were using it to adorn larger pieces such as storage chests. These larger pieces were then sold to the Dutch who introduced shagreen to Europe.
The 19th century saw the demise in its use as fashion swung in other directions. Of course there were exceptions however. One being was Napoleon III who commissioned his bedroom to be completely lined with green shagreen at vast expense. It must have been quite spectacular!
20th century trend
It was the 20th century when shagreen became mainstream in the interior designers list of luxury materials. The movement started in Paris with the rise of Art Deco. Designers such as Jean-Michel Frank, Andre Groult and Paul Iribe being the more famous artists to use shagreen on their furniture and accessories as part of their signatures. In England it became a mainstay in collections by Asprey’s.
The first piece of shagreen that Henry Forwood personally owned was a gift from his parents. He explains:
We were traveling across Ireland and stopped at an antique shop in whose window something had caught my mother’s eye. Once inside, being aged nine, I began looking round for the best thing to entertain myself. An old sword hidden amongst a collection of canes and golf clubs stuffed into a tall coal bucket caught my attention. It had an impressive brass handle cast with anchors and ropes, with the grip wrapped in shagreen and bound with brass wire. It kept me enthralled during the shopping experience. Obviously, my interest caught my parent’s attention as I received it two weeks later as a birthday present. Wow was I happy. The sword wasn’t in the best of shape and sections of the shagreen had cracked and fallen off, but there was enough to get the feel of the leather and to understand why it was used for sword handles. The bumpy surface of the shagreen makes the handle much easier to grip, especially so when your hand got sweaty compared with flat leather or wood. Leather was also very durable, lasting the owner’s lifetime before age and climate start to take their toll.
the start of shagreen
During the 17th and early 18th centuries, English and Dutch craftsmen imported small quantities of shagreen skins which they used on high end luxury and expensive items such as telescopes, precession tool cases and cutlery cases. It was during the latter part of the 18th century that shagreen really took off as a material for interior designers.
One of the leading ladies of the French court and a mistress of King Louis XIV, Madame De Pompadour, began to commission shagreen pieces from a craftsman she favored, a Monsieur Jean-Claude Galuchat. She was a big influencer of her day and soon shagreen pieces by M. Galuchat were a must in fashionable society. So much so that the French to this day use the name ‘Galuchat’ as the common name to describe the leather.
It was also during this period that new colours were introduced. Previously natural plant dyes or bleaches were used so the only colours really available were greens or white. Now with the introduction of chemical dyes a much wider spectrum of colours can be obtained.
Real or faux shagreen?
Leafing through old Christies and Sotheby’s sales catalogues and seeing the pieces from designers reawakened Henry’s early interest in shagreen. He explains:
Personally I don’t like the concept of killing fish just for their skin and throwing away the meat, but that is how real shagreen is traditionally produced. This led me to think of creating an alternative material.
I studied furniture manufacture as my educational choice, the focus being on traditional wooden furniture. But it was in the 1990’s that I started to work with resin as an alternative material to wood. Initially I was inserting natural materials like pulses, bamboo and grains to create items such as lamps, bowls and furniture handles. Through this work and over a number of years, I developed the skills of mould making. Combined with a knowledge of chemistry, I was able to produce a pliable sheet of resin shagreen that was so realistic I can place it next to the real thing and it is difficult to tell which is real and which is faux. However I finally knew I had achieved my goal when a lady (who had just a week before visited two workshops in the Philippines specialising in real shagreen) after looking at my work for over an hour asked if the shagreen was real.
Forwood Design faux shagreen
At Forwood Design we haven’t stopped developing our product for our shagreen collection. Over the years we have continued to look into the chemical composition of our faux shagreen and are very proud to pass the latest and most stringent health and safety laws in the world, those of California.
Shagreen for Interior Designers
I love shagreen as a material because of its texture and variation in pattern. I hope you like it too. With my years of interior design collaboration, I think shagreen looks best as a small group of accessories or a single large statement piece.
Frequently asked questions about shagreen
Q. What is shagreen finish?
A. Shagreen is a durable stingray leather with one side covered with round calcified papillae called placoid scales. These calcified papillae create a smoothly rough texture. In the past it has been used as a kind of sandpaper for smoothing of wood and metal.
Q. Is shagreen expensive?
A. The price of shagreen is normally a third more expensive than cowhide. Faux shagreen is about the same price as the real skin, but of course it is far more environmentally sound.
Q. What is faux shagreen made of?
A. Faux Shagreenis an imitation of the real Stingray skin. There are a number of ways of making faux shagreen some of which are more realistic than others.
One method is printing. This method is used when applying a shagreen look on ceramics.
Another version of shagreen is made by chopping up leather scraps and mixing it with rubber as a binder and then embossing the reconstituted leather sheet.
Finally a cast can be made from a real skin and a mould made from the cast. This method produces the most realistic faux shagreen and is the method we use at Forwood Design.
Q. Is Stingray leather legal?
A. Stingrays are not an endangered species, but importing them is controlled. For the US one needs a license from US Fish and Wildlife Service. Faux shagreen needs no such license.
Q. Is Stingray leather durable?
A. Shagreen is one of the most durable exotic leathers. It is naturally water resistant and is remarkable resistant to staining.