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RAWHIDE, LEATHER, SHARKSKIN, RAYSKIN, AND SHAGREEN -what are they and what is the difference?

First we need to know some terms and some history. The first Shagreen, made in ancient times, was made from untanned skin of horses, asses, and camels. This is considered rawhide, not leather which is treated with tannins. The material originated in the middle east and the word shagreen is thought to have been derived from the Turkish word for rump, 'sagri' These rawhides were turned into what was then called shagreen, by soaking in water, scraping off the hair, being stretched on a frame, and and the hide strewn with hard seeds of a plant. Pressure was then applied by press or by human feet which worked the seeds into the leather creating pitting of the surface. Once dried the seeds were shaken off and the material was now pitted. This material could then be surfaced and dyed. The most common color was green, originally achieved by mixing ammonium chloride and copper filings to produce the green color. This may be how shagreen was first associated with green as the most typical color. There were other colors produced with other chemicals. During the drying process the material becomes very hard and shrinks to produce a tight fit around cases and the like. In summary, what was originally called 'shagreen' was stretched pitted rawhide.

Later on, both sharkskin and rayskin were used for was later called 'shagreen' but could appear quite different from the original and, in fact each other. Sharkskin was usually a single color usually black, and rough, but could also be polished and smoothed out, at least to some extent. Sharkskin has a relatively uniform texture and color. Since sharkskin is naturally (but uniformly) pitted, it more closely resembles the original rawhide product, but without the need to impart the texture with seeds.

Rayskin on the other hand, has a pattern which changes slightly from the center outward. Rayskin could be polished and smoothed slightly or to a greater degree. When only partly smoothed out it has a 'bumpy' appearance; when highly polished it reveals a 'pearly' pattern which made it much more decorative, but still durable once dried. Rayskin-derived shagreen was most often dyed green but can also be found in other colors.

Sharkskin 'shagreen' on antique instruments (usually the outside of the cases), is generally referred to today simply as sharkskin or fishskin covering and is generally black or gray in color. In the antique mileau today, the word shagreen is no longer used to describe this. Although very durable, this one-colored material with a surface composed of uniform tiny 'bumps' is not very decorative. It was sometimes decorated with metal accents of silver or other metals.

Today, most people refer to the covering of scientific instruments(or their cases) with a beautiful polished rayskin, with a 'pearly' pattern as Shagreen. When applied to the compound tube of antique microscopes, gray is the most common color found on surviving instruments, followed by red or pink, with green shagreen being the least common color found on surviving antique microscope tubes. Although antique shagreen-covered cases for things like jewelry and drawing instruments were most often green in color, it is notable that on the tubes of antique microscopes themselves it was the least common. Tooled, embossed, and/or dyed leather is sometimes confused with Shagreen.