What Is a Sable Under the Tree?

"Santa, baby, slip a sable under the tree for me ...." It's the first line of a popular Christmas song recorded by many celebrities, including Eartha Kitt, Marilyn Monroe, and Madonna. The 1953 song details a wish list featuring a number of extravagant gifts, including a platinum mine, a yacht, and decorations from Tiffany. Most of the items are easily understood, but the sable may be unfamiliar to those who are not conversant with expensive furs.

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The Animal

Sable fur is harvested from Martes zibellina, a species of marten indigenous to northern Asia. This marten is a mostly carnivorous mammal with a thick winter coat that is light brown on the stomach and darker brown on the back. Some sables have a light "bib" or patch on the throat. They live in dense pine, spruce or cedar forests in the northern regions of Russia and China.

The Fur Trade

Martens have been hunted for their fur, called sable, for centuries. The Russian government holds a monopoly on the sable trade and auctions off sable furs three times a year, with all proceeds going to the Russian government. According to the Fur Commission USA, the highest quality sable comes from the Barguzin Valley in Russia. Barguzin sable is often called crown sable or imperial sable because its use was reserved to the Russian ruling family during Tsarist times. Other sources of sable include Canada, China and Japan.

Types of Sable

Like most luxury goods, sable comes in various grades or levels of quality. Place of origin is a prime consideration, with Barguzin sable being the most expensive, and Chinese or Japanese being the least costly. Color and weight are also factored into the quality assessment. The best-quality fur is deep and has even, silver-tipped guard hairs. It is a deep brown with blue undertones. Lighter sables, with a red or amber color, are less costly.

Sources of Sable

In Tsarist times, sables were caught in the wild. In the early 20th century, their numbers were severely depleted and preserves were set up to protect and replenish the species. Today's sables may be culled from the populations on these preserves, or they may be farmed from stringently controlled breeding stock.

Uses of Sable

Sable fur is most often made into coats, stoles, or wraps. This is the most likely interpretation of the song's lyrics: the singer wants a sable coat or wrap -- the most expensive and most elegant possible use of the fur. Matching accessories, including gloves, muffs, earmuffs and scarves, are also available in many furriers' stores.

References

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