In an age of cheap, mass-manufacturable, hi-tech materials, it may come as a surprise to find that some things are still made of cow horn. Indeed, pre-plastics, it was the norm for many items – combs, beakers, lanterns – to be made out of this strong, sustainable, bio-degradable by-product of the beef industry; long before, in fact, anyone was concerned about such green thinking.
“But it’s more than that that gets people buying horn products,” argues Paul Cleasby, director of Lancashire-based Abbeyhorn, which has been making horn products since 1749. “People want more hand-crafted items, but they also want more individualistic ones – and every item in horn, even those to the same design, are unique because of the material.”
Perhaps this is what also makes the likes of classic gentleman’s grooming accessories – shaving brushes, hairbrushes and the like – so appealing. “They’re not things that the modern man really needs – they’re luxuries, but all the moreso because they’re warm to handle and good to look at, regardless of any actual use,” argues Cleasby, who has supplied Hardy Amies, among others, with a number of special items, including shoehorns and clothes brushes. “They also suggest a bygone age of gentlemen’s dressing, when a man of means used such items daily. Horn products on your dressing table suggest a man of taste.”
Taste in a quite literal way too perhaps. Abbeyhorn may be seeing a spike in business thanks to ‘Game of Thrones’ – the TV mega-series to which it supplied horn cups and bowls – but perhaps the bon viveurs of yore had the right idea. Horn, unlike metal, has a neutral effect on the palette, which is why caviar spoons, for example, are still made of it. Indeed, it is precisely this quality of being a entirely natural product – Abbeyhorn items are made simply by slicing, heating, moulding, sanding and cloth polishing Ankola horn from Nigeria, with no chemical usage required – that looks set to ensure it faces something of a renaissance.
“Most horn is ground up to make fertilizer, in fact,” says Cleasby. “But with minimal treatment it can become this wonderful, semi-precious, natural material that can be used to make the kind of things that become heirlooms, that can last more than a lifetime.”