Monday 9 July 2018
Shagreen is a material that's been used for centuries but is still very much in favour with the contemporary designers and craftsmen of today. Initially, the term shagreen was used to describe the rawhide of an animal with a rough pitted surface.
One such group of craftsmen can be found in England and are
known as Silverlining who specialise in bespoke furniture
of exceptional quality.
Their work can be found on super yachts and some of the most prestigious private residences in the world. Over the years theyâ€™ve used shagreen extensively on their furniture and have become one of its foremost exponents.
Shagreen has a long and varied history and thereâ€™s much conjecture as to the origins of its use. The hide would be from the rump of a horse or donkey and the pitting would be created by impressing the surface with chenopodium seeds.
It's thought that this process originated in Persia. The Turkish word for rump is 'sagriâ' and may well form the origin of the word shagreen. In addition to this, the word shagreen may have precipitated the French, 'chagrin', used to express strong feelings of annoyance or displeasure and may be a reference to the rough surface of the hide.
In more modern times however the term shagreen has come to refer to the skin of stingrays and sharks and, like its ancient counterpart, also has (in its raw state at least) a rough surface. Likewise shagreen cannot be called leather, as it's not subjected to the tanning process and instead is termed a rawhide.
It's thought that the very first people to use shagreen were the ancient Egyptians and evidence of this has been discovered in
the tombs of the pharaohs.
Here, shagreen was used on decorative items and was also fashioned into body armour. Likewise shagreen was also used as body armour by the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220).
Later, the Japanese of the 8th and 9th century Nara and Heian dynasties, also used shagreen as body armour and, more famously, for wrapping the handles of their swords. The 'katana', as these swords are known, had a long handle to accommodate two-handed use. Wrapping the handle in shagreen gave the warriors a reliable grip, even when the handle became covered in sweat, blood or indeed both. The good condition of many of these ancient articles is testament to the durability of shagreen.
At around the same time the fishermen who caught stingrays often gutted the fish on board their boats and discarded the skins into the sea. However, it's recorded that they sometimes kept the skins because of their coarse nature. The skins were then used in boat building as an abrasive, in much the same way as sandpaper is used today.
Shagreen-wrapped objects began to be imported into Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and in the mid 1700s, a master leather worker in Paris became the first European shagreen expert.
His name was Jean-Claude Galluchat and he worked in the court of Louis XV. Such was his fame in the use of shagreen, that his name was transformed into 'galuchat', the French word for shagreen. Madam Pompadour,
the most famous mistress of Louis XV, became the dominant patron of Monsieur Galluchat and itâ's said that barely a week went by without her ordering some new item. It's through Galluchat's work for the royal court that shagreen became popular with the French aristocracy and spread throughout Europe by the mid 18th century. The objects produced at the time were generally small and included snuffboxes and wig cases. Later, the English craftsman John Paul Cooper of London expanded the use of Shagreen. Between 1899 and 1933, his workshops produced nearly 1,000 artefacts veneered in shagreen. These included vases, elaborate boxes, candlesticks
However, it was in the Art Deco period where shagreen found its ultimate expression. Designers such as Jean Michel Frank, Adolphe Chanaux, and Jacques Emile Ruhlmann used shagreen extensively on large items of furniture, not just the small trinkets, which had been produced previously. They found new ways of working with the material and developed techniques for wrapping shagreen around large curved forms. Art Deco created some of the most extravagantly luxurious items of furniture ever made and shagreen often formed a central part in their design.
With the austerity of the Second World War and post war period,
the extreme luxury of Art Deco and shagreen fell out of fashion. Many of the specialist techniques for working with the material were also forgotten. It was not until the 1980s that shagreen began its revival, as designers and craftsmen began to rediscover the legacy of Art Deco. Many of the techniques of the early 20th century masters have had to be re-learned.
Stingray skins are prepared for use by initially washing and stretching them over frames and leaving them to dry out. The skins are then removed from the frames and placed onto a table where they're scraped to level the surface and remove the majority
of the high points of the papillae.
How much of the papillae are removed is dependant on the type of finish required. Sometimes the skins will be made completely flat and at other times the natural tendency for the skin to thicken towards the centre, at the jewel, will be left. This will give the skin a slightly 3D appearance and helps to create an interesting play of light on the surface. Of course, working with skins, which are not completely even in thickness, poses an extra challenge to craftsman. Once the scraping is complete, the surface is then smoothed, ready for dying. Today shagreen can be readily dyed to any Pantone colour using vegetable dyes.
Great care must be taken to ensure that shagreen doesn't shrink once applied, especially when used on large areas. Specialist adhesives and painstaking preparation of the material go into ensuring that shrinkage doesn't occur. CNC cutting technology is constantly opening up options for designers, making intricate inlay work feasible for the first time. Additionally, 3D modelling allows designers to create patterns in shagreen, which can be wrapped around surfaces with compound curves, something that was previously possible only with extremely time consuming hand-cutting, as in bespoke tailoring.
The qualities of shagreen are such that designers are continually finding new uses for it. Motorbike riders are taking advantage of its durability, as itâ€™s now combined with carbon fibre in the production of motorbike gloves. Additionally, it's now possible to have your motorbike seat custom made in shagreen and it's also used to create non-slip grips on pool cues.
Scientific studies of the rough texture of shark and ray skins have found that it forms part of the hydrodynamics of the animal.
This texture cuts down turbulence in the water immediately next to the skin and so reduces drag.
This idea is being copied by the manufacturers of swimsuits, who claim that wearing one of their suits can make the difference between winning and loosing. Such bioprospecting is just one of the many ways man continues to make use of this amazing material.
Today, the stingray most commonly used by Silverlining, is the species Dasyatis Bleekeri and these creatures generally inhabit the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean. In Thailand these stingrays are often bred for food, so their skins are a lucrative by-product from this industry. As the stingray is not traditionally a high-value food product, it hasn't been over-fished, as is the case with many other species. As a result, stingrays are not protected under CITES, (Convention on Trade in Endangered Species) as it's believed that their populations are growing in number. Additionally, modern shagreen is usually taken from farmed animals and therefore its use doesn't impact the natural populations.
Shagreen has long been prized for both its decorative qualities and hardwearing nature. In fact its surface is said to be up to twenty-five times tougher than cow leather. This is a quality that Silverlining exploits with their use of shagreen on high-wear areas of their furniture such as cabinet handles and bar sides.
This resilience comes from the calcified papillae, called placoid scales, which form a rough granular surface on the unfinished skins.
The effect this produces is rather similar to having pearls densely set into leather backing. In terms of their composition, these scales are similar to teeth and so are extremely hard. The placoid scales are generally smaller towards the edges of the skin, getting progressively larger at the centre, where they culminate in one especially large scale, often referred to as the 'backbone' or 'jewel'. This jewel is often used to great effect, to create a focal point for their work, or make repeating patterns on furniture.