Tortoise Shell

 19th and early 20th century tortoise shell objects Christie’s Sale 2811

19th and early 20th century tortoise shell objects
Christie’s Sale 2811

Tortoise shell objects are made from the outer blades covering the upper shell of the Hawksbill turtle and the Loggerhead turtle.  Fortunately, it has been illegal to produce tortoise shell jewelry since the 1970s.  The beauty and rarity of real Tortoise Shell is, for me, tempered by its sad history.  In order to buy or sell Tortoise Shell legally, it must be at least a hundred years old and a genuine antique, or to have originated from a private collection (for example, if you get left some Tortoise Shell jewelry as an inheritance). But do double check the laws in your own country as they differ.

Testing Tortoise Shell.  

Other materials such as celluloid, Lucite, Bakelite, horn, bone and plastic can all be mistaken for tortoiseshell, especially if looking at pictures alone.  In order to identify genuine Tortoise Shell, apply a hot pin to a hidden spot - if the resulting smell is similar to burned hair and a black spot is left, it is likely to be Tortoise Shell.  If there is a plastic smell it is not Tortoise Shell. You can also run it under hot water to see if it gives off a plastic smell.  Another way to tell is have a look at the markings - real Tortoise Shell is not regular in it’s marking and will have a distinctive luminosity when held to the light.  There will also be a slight unevenness to it that cannot be found in molded materials.  Upon close inspection, one can often see fine knife marks where the tortoiseshell was carved by hand.

Colors

Most Tortoise Shell is the dark brown or reddish-brown variety with translucent amber high-lights but it can also be a uniform dark brown with no amber. Generally speaking, the older and more well worn the piece, the darker the Tortoise Shell, even appearing quite black in very old pieces. Tortoise Shell can also bethe ‘Blonde’ or ‘Demi-Blonde’ variety in which case it will not be dark, but will still darken with age.  Blonde Tortoiseshell is rarer and is considered more valuable and can range from an even pale yellow to a deep amber color. Tortoise Shell can also be stained different colors.

 A GEORGE III GREEN-STAINED TORTOISESHELL TEA CADDYChristie’s sale 6853

A GEORGE III GREEN-STAINED TORTOISESHELL TEA CADDYChristie’s sale 6853

  AN ENGLISH BLONDE TORTOISESHELL DRESSING TABLE SET     Christie’s Sale 4888    

AN ENGLISH BLONDE TORTOISESHELL DRESSING TABLE SET  
Christie’s Sale 4888

 

 A SPANISH COLONIAL TORTOISESHELL AND SILVER MOUNTED DOMED CASKET 18th century Christie’s Sale 4607

A SPANISH COLONIAL TORTOISESHELL AND SILVER MOUNTED DOMED CASKET 18th century
Christie’s Sale 4607

Uses

Tortoise Shell is very pliable and can be formed into many shapes with heat. It can also be carved and inlaid (piqué). Tortoise Shell was a very popular material throughout the 18th, 19th and first part of the 20th century.  It had an enormous variety of uses in jewelry, household objects and accessories. 

Here are some examples below:

Hair Ornaments

Fans

Bangles

Brooches

Boxes

Cigarette Holders

Dog Collars

Dressing Table Sets and Traveling Boxes

Canes

Card Cases

Necessaires and étui

Glasses and Lorgnettes

Piqué

One of the most popular uses for tortoise shell was piqué, which involved the delicate inlay of gold and silver. Every type of jewelry, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, rings and brooches, were produced throughout the Victorian era with this fine technique.

Sources / further reading:

http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Tortoise_Shell

http://www.ebay.com/gds/TORTOISESHELL-Real-or-fake-How-to-tell-the-difference/10000000012067858/g.html

http://www.conservation-housekeeping.co.uk/blog/24-antique-tortoiseshell-ivory-bone-a-mother-of-pearl

http://www.nre.gov.my/Biodiversity/BioD%20Knowledge/CITES_Briefcase-10_Tortoiseshell_Identification.pdf

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