Shagreen is a pebbled leather traditionally made from rayfish skin, though it can also come from shark or dogfish. The subtle texture of the hide creates an exotic surface when applied to furniture or accessories. New high-tech reproductions (like beaded vinyls by Phillip Jeffries and “Shagreen” porcelain tile by Steve Charles for Artistic Tile) are making faux versions more accessible—not to mention more affordable.
- From Egyptian pharaohs to Japanese samurai, early civilizations were fascinated by the winged rayfish and believed its skin bestowed strength and power.
- An 18th-century Parisian tanner named Jean-Claude Galluchat became the first noted European shagreen expert. His best customer was Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour.
- John Paul Cooper, a metalsmith and leading figure in the British Arts and Crafts movement, elevated the craft at the turn of the 20th century, producing hundreds of veneered decorative items. But shagreen reached the height of its popularity during the Art Deco period, when it was used by modernist designers like Jean-Michael Frank.
- The pearl-like “crown” in the center of a ray’s back is what is left of a dorsal fin after its evolution. It is often used as a decorative focal point.
- Like furs and other leathers, shagreen can be controversial. Fans contend that rayfish are not endangered and that the skins are often discarded after the animals are harvested for meat.