Natural Materials I – Horn

Posted by: on Aug 3, 2011 | No Comments

I write a lot about specific brands and products, but it really all begins with the fine natural materials that are the foundation to any good garment or accessory.  To get the ball rolling, let’s take a look at horn.

People have been using animal horn for thousands of years and in every corner of the globe.  A particular region in India, Orissa, has a rich mystical tradition built around horn-craft totems and objects, and the Romans certainly loved their drinking horns.  Whatever animals were available were used, and the different natural properties created great variations between regions.

Nowadays most horn-craft you encounter comes from ram, buffalo, or cow.  The names are a bit misleading though – buffalo horn is from Water Buffalo and cow horn is from wild cows or oxen, since domesticated breeds have had their horns bred out of them to prevent injuries in stock yards and dairies.  Some people would lump mother-of-pearl and deer antler in with horn, but they really are substantially different.  The British company Abbeyhorn has a great primer on the various types of horn they use and what makes each unique, so I won’t bore you by repeating it here.

The place we’re probably all most used to seeing horn is as buttons for coats, trousers, or what-have-you.  Horn buttons, with their translucent, flecked appearance, nice weight, and soft or glossy finish are a much more attractive alternative to dull plastic.  Not to mention they’re less prone to scratching and chipping, and come in just about every color from dusty ivory to nearly ebony.

But there are a variety of other uses for horn.  As you can see from the diagram, horn is dense and solid at the tip, but becomes thinner and more hollow as it gets wider (and closer to where the skull would be).  By cutting lengthwise along the grain, and then heating and twisting the cross-section until straight-ish you get a natural shoe-horn.  Hence where the term comes from.

Through various combinations of cutting, heating, and bending, you can make everything from combs to bowls to handles for sticks and furniture.  The material is keratin-based, so not unlike our fingernails, and can be polished to varying degrees of shine depending on the application.  These days the raw material is exclusively a byproduct of the meat industry and natural deaths (as long as you buy from reputable sources), so you don’t have to worry about the ethical qualms associated with materials like ivory and tortoise shell.


Abbeyhorn is the predominant maker of widely-available horn-craft, and supplies many of the top brands and haberdashers with their house-branded goods.  The shoe horn pictured above is from The Hanger Project, though I suspect the skilled artisans to whom it’s attributed are those chaps from Cumbria I just mentioned.

As long as they don’t sit in a damp, warm environ, your horn goods should maintain their shape and only get better with time.  You can see that comb has warped a bit from the humidity of a small bathroom, but the semi-gloss finish has only gotten deeper and better from contact with the body’s natural oils.

For me though, the horn holy grail is a pair of specs from E.B. Meyrowitz in London.  Light plays off them in a way you can’t begin to believe without trying them on.  Glasses are really the perfect application for horn when you think about it – the more you wear them the more their color becomes your hair and skin’s doing, they’re light, tactile, and beautiful, and they become more yours every moment they’re on your face.  In short, everything that makes us love horn in the first place.

Thanks to Abbeyhorn for the above diagram.

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