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What is Tortoiseshell?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Tortoiseshell, or tortie in a commercial sense, is a mottled brown, black and sometimes orange pattern, often made of plastic, which is used to make a variety of products. These may include the frames of regular eyeglasses or sunglasses, buttons, and a number of decorative and useful hair clips and designs. Tortoiseshell bases its design on the shell markings of the hawksbill turtle, and initially it was made from the turtle.

Many decorative items were once made from the shells of turtles. There are frames for pictures in the Renaissance, tea sets, and jewelry boxes. The earliest use of tortoiseshell dates back to decorative uses in China and Japan. Often, a whole turtle shell was lacquered and used as a bowl. The Ancient Greeks and early Romans also used it in jewelry, to back hairbrushes and in hair ornaments.

Unfortunately, trade in true tortoiseshell had a devastating effect on the hawksbill turtle population. Though the hawksbill exists worldwide, primarily living in coral reefs, it is considered to be severely endangered. Concern for the possible extinction of this species, and also relative difficulty in harvesting the shells, led in the early 20th century to celluloid (an early version of plastic) exhibiting the desirable design. By the 1920s and 1930s, tortoiseshell frames for eyeglasses were primarily made of celluloid and not the actual turtle shell. Today, few areas export true tortoiseshell, in hopes the species will survive if it is not hunted.

In the 1950s, tortoiseshell sunglasses became very popular. In this sense, though the pattern has a long history, sunglasses with these frames are often considered to be retro 50s. This is especially true when they are manufactured by companies like Ray-Ban®.

Tortoiseshell hair ornaments are also ancient in pattern. Today, the plastic version of these are cheaply purchased at any local drug store, as are knock-off sunglasses. There are a variety of clips, barrettes, headbands, scrunchies, sticks and bobbie pins with a tortoiseshell design. Many women enjoy the mottled colors, which tend to blend well with brunette hair, or make a nice contrast to blonde, red or black hair. Some cloth manufacturers have also made fabric with the mottled pattern. Any personal ornamental use of tortoiseshell has never been completely out of style, but like most things in fashion, tortie patterns may be more or less popular depending on the season.

Popularity of this pattern is not exclusive to clothing or ornaments. Several cat breeds exhibit tortie colors. These are often an unevenly distributed mix of orange, brown and black. There are Persian and Shorthair torities, and a variety of mix-breed cats with the pattern. Interestingly, few male cats have this coloring and are considered aberrations. The markings occur most often on female cats and are considered a sex-linked inherited trait.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By golf07 — On Aug 24, 2012

I have an aunt who has done a lot of traveling around the world and has all kinds of unique treasures from her travels.

She has some tortoiseshell jewelry that I am pretty sure is made from the real thing. I can't imagine she would have bought any imitation plastic tortoiseshell jewelry. I must say it is very beautiful, but not at the expense of harming the turtles.

By sunshined — On Aug 23, 2012

When I was growing up we lived on a farm, and had a lot of cats running around. Many of them were what I called calico, or had tortie colors.

When I think about it, all of the cats with this color were females. I don't remember any of the male cats having this coloring. These were all mix-breed cats and were nothing fancy like a tortoiseshell Persian cat.

I find it interesting that this is so rare in male cats. My favorite cats were always the ones that had a mixture of several colors instead of just one solid color.

By honeybees — On Aug 23, 2012

How sad that the hawksbill turtle population is still endangered because of the harvesting of the tortoiseshell. While I like this pattern, I never realized that this originally came from a tortoise.

I have brown hair, and have always enjoyed the tortoiseshell look because it blends in well with my hair. Tortoiseshell glasses and hair clips stand out more because there is some mixing of colors instead of just one solid color.

I know that everything I have in this style is made from plastic and not the real thing.

By cloudel — On Aug 22, 2012

I have several kinds of tortoiseshell hair accessories. I was able to find claw clips, barrettes, and bobby pins that shared this pattern and color.

I love using tortoiseshell items in my hair, because I have medium brown hair with slightly golden highlights that matches the tones perfectly. I don't think that hair accessories should draw attention to themselves, and tortoiseshell barrettes are nearly invisible.

They let the focus be on my hairstyle instead. I understand why children want to wear brightly colored barrettes and scrunchies, but older teenagers and adults prefer something that is camouflaged.

By feasting — On Aug 22, 2012

@healthy4life – I think that most people do refer to them as tortoiseshell eyeglasses, even if the colors vary a lot. They style is still the same, and everyone knows what you mean when you use this term to describe them.

My mother had some red and yellow tortoiseshell-style sunglasses back in the eighties. They came to a point like cat eyes, and the colors were loud, but the pattern was unmistakable.

By healthy4life — On Aug 21, 2012

I have seen a variety of colors thrown into tortoiseshell frames. Often, I have come across mixtures of pink and black or blue and black that exhibit characteristics of the original pattern but differ in terms of color.

Are these still considered to be tortoiseshell, even though they are not brown? Since they are plastic, there is no limit to what colors can be made. I still call them tortoiseshell frames, even if that isn't technically correct.

By seag47 — On Aug 20, 2012

I have seen tortoiseshell butterflies in my flower garden. They are orange with brown and black spots, and their undersides are brownish-gray.

I think its funny that a butterfly takes its name from a turtle's pattern. You would think that scientists would come up with a more lovely name for such a stunning creature.

By chumbai — On Dec 30, 2008

anyone know how to polish turtle shell jewelry?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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