Why Is Shagreen Fish Skin Used on Furniture? – Design Term

An antique round box covered with pearl ray shagreen, ground down to produce a smooth, puzzle-like surface.

Shagreen is fish skin used as a veneer to cover furniture and accessories. Also known as galuchat and sharkskin, shagreen is the skin on the belly of the dogfish. As a generic term, it means untanned animal hides made with pebble-textured surfaces. It was first made in the 17th century by Turkish and Persian herdsmen. Galuchat is named after the Parisian craftsman active during the reign of Louis XIV, who made sheaths and boxes. 

Use by Royalty

Shagreen, fresh off the fish, is like caviar, dense, odorous and bubbly. Stretched out and cured, it lends itself to the fine inlay or the covering of small pieces of furniture. It has become something of a fad at times. In the 1920s, the Prince of Wales commissioned shagreen caps for his shoes, and the Aga Khan, a decade later, ordered shagreen inlays for the interior of his Rolls-Royce. It was also used on the Italian Maiolica.

Art Deco Favourite

British artisan John Paul Cooper specialized in unusual materials, especially shagreen which he began using in 1903. This was some time before other Arts and Crafts practitioners began using the material before it became popular in 1910. After a 200-year hiatus, it was used by Clement Mere on toiletry boxes, sewing cases, and other small objects at the Paris Salons. 

Use by French Designers

By the 1920s Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Clement Rousseau, Andre Groult, Dominique, and other French designers used shagreen extensively combined with exotic woods. Jean-Michel Frank used shagreen to cover whole furniture pieces. When used on furniture, the skin is soaked in a chlorine solution to bleach, followed by scrubbing with a wire brush and a pumice stone to remove imperfections. The skin is usually stained green by a copper-acetate solution but can be made pink, blue, or grey. Its use is most effective on small objects, like those produced by Tiffany, Asprey, and Dunhill in the 1920s and 1930s. Synthetic shagreen is available, though it is more expensive and less desirable than the real product. 

Environmental Impact

Shagreen is becoming the finish of fashion and design, with prices between $1,300 and $4,750. Shagreen is harder to work with than regular leather, but the fact that it’s different makes it worth it.

Resp, a UN biotrade initiative, has challenged industry beliefs about python and crocodile skins but not about fish. With the latter, it’s assumed that crocodiles are sustainable because they are now raised on farms and not “stolen” from the wild. But raising them on farms can be bad for the animals and doesn’t always help wild populations.

Chondrichthyans have been taken for granted, according to a new study. (including sharks, rays and chimaeras). A recent study from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says that a quarter of them are in danger of extinction. This could be because there aren’t many facts about stingrays, and they can be hard to tell apart. Worryingly, a species of stingray that is “vulnerable” could look like a species that is “least concern.” In the last 20 years, the number of freshwater Mekong stingrays has dropped by half.

Faux shagreen is becoming more popular as an eco-friendly option to rare stingray leather. Designers like Diane von Furstenberg and Rebecca Minkoff use it in their work.


Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

How much shagreen is too much? (2011, April 2). The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/fashion-and-beauty/fashion/how-much-shagreen-is-too-much/article575190/

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, December 31). Shagreen. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:24, January 10, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Shagreen&oldid=997422339

Why are handbag manufacturers using stingray skin? | Lucy Siegle. (2014, March 23). The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/23/is-it-ok-to-buy-bags-made-from-stingray-skin


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