Shagreen has been prized since the time of the pharaohs in Egypt and during the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220).

In China, it was used in the construction of bows.

In Japan, shagreen has been well-documented and preserved since it began appearing on the sword hilts and armor of Japanese Samurai during the Middle Ages, dating back to at least the thirteenth century. This preservation is attributed to its textured surface, which provided a reliable grip. However, there is no evidence to suggest that shagreen was used in Asia during this time to decorate furniture for their domestic market.

The earliest known examples of furniture decorated with ray skin were actually produced in Japan but were intended for the European market. These items were initially brought to Europe by Portuguese traders in the late sixteenth century.

During this period, the Portuguese were importing substantial quantities of lacquerware from Japan to Europe. This early export lacquerware is commonly referred to as “namban,” a term that translates to “Southern barbarian” and was used by the Japanese to describe all foreigners except the Chinese and Koreans. The lacquer workshops tailored their production to meet the preferences of Western traders. Furnishings were crafted in shapes that would have been familiar to Europeans, and the lacquer decoration often exhibited inferior quality compared to objects made for Japanese consumers. Some of these items incorporated shagreen.

The Dutch, who replaced the Portuguese as the dominant European naval power trading with Japan in the early seventeenth century, also imported furniture decorated with shagreen and lacquer.

Japanese sword hilt covered with shagreen
Korean sword. Collection of the National Museum of Korea.
Japanese sword. Collection of the Koryo University Museum.

Europe, as we mentioned before began importing shagreen-covered objects during the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the mid-1700s, a tanner in Paris became the first European shagreen expert (his name, Galluchat, has been transformed into Galuchat, and now Galuchat is the French word for shagreen).

Louis XV’s most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour, was the dominant patron of Monsieur Galluchat.

Shagreen became a popular material again in Europe during the Art Deco era, when designers sought to fuse the French tradition of luxury with exotic and precious materials. Designers like Clément Rousseau and Jean-Michael Frank used shagreen to create their most sumptuous furniture.

Clement Rousseau. ( 1872 – 1950 )
Chest of drawers in ebony of macasar sheathed in shagreen, prints and nets in ivory

There are few records of its use in Korea.

Due to its high cost, shagreen was primarily used for small pieces, and very few shagreen-covered furniture items have survived to the present day.

However, it is worth noting the presence of several workshops that specialized in this technique on the island of Ganghwa, located northwest of Seoul. While original pieces are rare, some items executed during the 20th century have endured. These pieces of furniture, typically constructed from pine or paulownia, were coated with a thick black lacquer adorned with inlays of shagreen and mother-of-pearl.

The process of creating these pieces was time-consuming and intricate. Initially, the furniture was covered with a fabric that was directly adhered to the wood. The shagreen and mother-of-pearl decoration were then affixed to this fabric, and finally, layers of lacquer were meticulously applied.

The decorative motifs often featured a dragon and a Phoenix set against a floral background.

Paulownia wood covered with black lacquer inlay with shagreen and mother-of-pearl. Late 19th century. Ganghwa Island. Private collection.

Dragon design made of shagreen.
Pheonix design made of shagreen

Small barrel for storage for rigid and shaped stuff such as hat, or rare and stationery items such as brush, letter and paper. This box is covered with shagreen.
H. 12cm, Diameter: 6,5cm.
Collection of the National Museum of Korea.
Korean shagreen spectacle case
The case is made from a piece of wood, which has been hollowed out and covered with green sharkskin and coated with a thin layer of shellac (lacquer melted into thin flakes and used as varnish). Attached to the top of the case is a black draw string, which prevents the lid from becoming detached from the main container. Two narrow brass plates attached to the edge of the lid, protect and strengthen the case when opened. There is also a small brass ring attached to the bottom of the container. Collection; Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK.
Document box. Paulownia wood covered with shagreen.
H. 12,5cm, W. 42,5cm, D. 11,5cm.

Collection of the National Museum of Korea.
Red lacquered box with peony scroll design. Shagreen inlay.
Jeoson dynasty. Late 19th early 20th century.
Collection of the Horim Museum in Seoul.
PHOTOS TOP & RIGHT. Korean cabinets decorated with shagreen.
Antique shagreen stacking cabinet. Labelled 19th century.
H. 93cm, L. 61cm, D. 36cm.
Beige & green shagreen inlay signs of double happiness on the doors.
Private Collection.
Treasure Cabinet (Kap-kae-suri)
19th century
Lacquered wood with brass wire and dyed ray skin inlay;
gilded metal fittings.
H. 61cm, W. 66cm, D. 43,2cm.
Photos detail Treasure cabinet.
Top & side.

Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art. USA
Storage chest with design of phoenixes, taegeuk, and eight trigrams, early 20th century, wood with amber lacquer, inlaid with sharkskin, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, and gild copper wire; brass fittings. H. 110,5cm, W. 91,5cm, D. 35,5cm.
Collection of the Portland Museum, USA.
Cabinet side with shagreen inlay. Floral design.
Table with phoenix motif 봉황 무늬 상.
Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl, shagreen, and metal wire.
H. 25,4 cm, Diam. 69,9 cm. Date: 1850 – 1950.
This lacquered wooden table is composed of a round top mounted on a short conical pedestal. The surface is decorated with two phoenixes, while the sides of the pedestal are pierced with four circles containing a symbol of the Korean national flag (Taegeukgi).
Collection of Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture.

Tray with phoenix motif 봉황 무늬 쟁반 Date: 1850-1910.  Lacquered wood with inlaid ray skin and brass wire. H. 43,5 cm, Diam. 34,3 cm. Collection of Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture.

Last half of 18th century
Joseon dynasty.
26.7 x 22.2 x 19.1 cm.
Collection The Brooklyn Museum.
Very large metal or jade seals were used in the Joseon period to put the stamp of approval on state documents. The seals themselves became emblems of authority, displayed at meetings and handled with great care. This is the outer storage and carrying box for a seal of the State Council, or Uijeongbu, a board of the king’s highest-ranking advisors. Nesting inside would have been a lacquered wood box that held the actual seal. This is one of the objects that the Museum’s first curator of Ethnography, Stewart Culin, acquired during his groundbreaking expedition to Korea in 1913.
Small box covered with sharkskin. H. 9,3 cm, L. 10,2 cm, W. 10,2 cm. Collection National Museum of Korea.
Seal box covered with galuchat. H. 24cm, W. 21,5cm, D. 21,5cm. Collection: Dongguk University, Seoul.
Document box covered with galuchat. H. 12,6cm, W. 34cm, D. 17,3cm, Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Galuchat covering a safe.
Photos left & right: Korean safe covered with galuchat. H. 46,2cm, W. 83cm, D. 37,5cm. Collection: Korean National Maritime Museum. Busan.
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