Before the invention of plastic, you could make an instrument or jewelry case out of the following materials: wood, paper, metal, or animal skin. All these have pluses and minuses, but the most interesting of these cases to me is animal skin - specifically, shagreen. In both Europe and Asia a very common casing material was made by using either tanned shark or stingray skin. It came in gradations of quality and in all sorts of patterns. The term "shagreen" is also used to describe any textured leather, but we are discussing here the real thing. Shagreen was also used for purses, scabbards and other items.
Shagreen has a couple of advantages over regular leather for small cases. It is possible that it's simply more waterproof, and its rough texture makes it slip resistant. The rough texture also hides the bruises and tribulations one gets when taking any instrument case on the road. The case above, which I photographed for my photo blog a few weeks ago, is actually made of a recycled paper core covered with shagreen. It was a set - expensive set for its time - that was designed for architects and surveyors to take on the road. The paper interior is pretty beat up, but the leather is in remarkably good shape. The top surface of the leather is worn through, exposing what looks like bone bumps to me, but the case still has full integrity.
Shagreen was also used when you needed something that had a grip to it that wouldn't slip through your hands. So we see it on Asian sword scabbards. Shagreen was also used for adjustment rings on early microscopes.
The closed instrument case below belongs to a mid-19th century set by Holtzaffel, the premier London toolmaker and retailer. The leather casing has a texture, but it isn't actually shagreen. Rather it's regular leather that was embossed with a pebble texture. While you don't get the grip or the waterproofing you need on a portable case, the textured leather looks nice and hides imperfection in the leather - and any bruises and scuffs the case might suffer over the years.
The single most gorgeous application of shagreen I've ever seen is on a sword case in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here a species of ray was used that has very big bumps, unlike the small bumps of my case. The skin was lacquered black and then the bumps were flattened and polished, so you get a black case with random sized, bone circles in it. This one dates from nineteenth century Japan, but the style could just as easily be Art Deco from the early 20th century. (below)
In this last image (below) of the hilt of another 19th century Japanese sword white ray skin (actually yellowish) was wrapped in a black and while cord. You can see the bumpy shagreen peeping out behind the wrapping.
Thanks for this. I have a number of old drafting tools that came in these shagreen cases. Never knew it was actually stingray skin. Good to know.
09/14/2022 Sarah Waldock
Thank you, an informative article! I love that scabbard.
09/14/2022 Dave Somerville
One salient characteristic of genuine shagreen is that, compared to other kinds of leather, it's practically indestructable. I have a wallet that I bought at the Bangkok airport 10 years ago and have carried every day since. It looks like new.
09/14/2022 Av M
Great article! You neglected one important detail though - this stuff is near impossible to sew. It breaks needles in a sewing machine and assuming you “dodge” and sew around the ossicles (bones) you now no longer have a straight sewing line. I recently heard of a bespoke shoemaker who used laser cutter to create the holes, which he then hand-sewed to finish the shoes.
That's an amazing look on that saya! What a great idea to polish it flat. It reminds me of terrazzo.
09/14/2022 Rich Colvin
Jon Sauer uses this stuff in his ornamental turnings. You can find them on Instagram or at his web site, https://www.jonsauer.com/. Beautiful work!