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The word derives from the French chagrin and is related to Italian zigrino and Venetian sagrin, derived from the Turkish sāğrī / çāğrī 'rump of a horse' or the prepared skin of this part. The roughness of its texture led to the French meaning of anxiety, vexation, embarrassment, or annoyance.
Shagreen has an unusually rough and granular surface, and is sometimes used as a fancy leather for book bindings, pocketbooks and small cases, as well as its more utilitarian uses in the hilts and scabbards of swords and daggers, where slipperiness is a disadvantage. In Asia, the Japanese Tachi, Katana, and Wakizashi swords had their hilts almost always covered in undyed rawhide shagreen, while in China shagreen was traditionally used on Qing dynasty composite bows. Typically the ears and the spaces above and beneath the grip were covered by polished shagreen (in which the calcified papillae are reduced to equal height and form a uniform surface), sometimes with inlay work of different coloured shagreen. Shagreen was a very common cover for 19th century reading glasses containers as well as other utensil boxes from China.
The early horse-skin variety of shagreen was traditionally prepared by embedding plant seeds (often Chenopodium) in the untreated skin while soft, covering the skin with a cloth, and trampling them into the skin. When the skin was dry, the seeds were shaken off, leaving the surface of the leather covered with small indentations. Sources are not clear whether this was being done to imitate pearl ray-skin shagreen from East Asia or the technique was developed separately.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the term "shagreen" began to be applied to leather made from sharkskin or the skin of a rayfish (probably the pearled ray, Hypolophus sephen). This form is also termed sharkskin or galuchat. Such skins are naturally covered with round, closely set, calcified papillae called placoid scales, whose size is chiefly dependent on the age and size of the animal. These scales are ground down to give a roughened surface of rounded pale protrusions, between which the dye (again, typically green vegetable dye) shows when the material is coloured from the other side. This latter form of shagreen was first popularised in Europe by Jean-Claude Galluchat (d. 1774), a master leatherworker in the court of Louis XV of France. It quickly became a fashion amongst the French aristocracy, and migrated throughout Europe by the mid-18th century.
In medicine, a shagreen patch is a patch of shagreen-like rough skin, often on the lower back, found in some people with the genetic condition tuberous sclerosis.