QUESTION: I like antique clocks and have a number of them in my home. I saw this English, tortoiseshell carriage clock sold by J.C. Vickery of London in 1904 at an antique show recently but was hesitant to buy it because tortoiseshell is now illegal. Can I still purchase this clock or will I be committing an illegal act? Also, what can you tell me about tortoiseshell decoration?
ANSWER: While it’s illegal to use tortoiseshell in manufacturing items, it is legal to buy and sell antiques in which tortoiseshell has been used as a decoration.
Tortoiseshell is an ornamental material obtained from the curved horny shields forming the shell of the hawksbill turtle. People have long valued tortoiseshell’s marbled, varicolored pattern and deep translucence for making jewelry, furniture, and other objects. The Romans first imported it from Egypt. During the 17th-century, the French raised the level of artistry for tortoiseshell in decorating jewel cases, trays, snuffboxes, and other items. The craft soon spread to other parts of Europe.
Eastern and Western artisans used tortoiseshell from ancient times until the buying and selling of raw tortoiseshell was banned in 1973 under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Ancient Greeks used tortoiseshell to make their lyres and wealthy Romans used inlaid veneers of tortoiseshell for furniture, especially couches for dining, and for small objects.
Craftsmen normally used it in thin slices or pieces to make a wide variety of objects such as combs, small boxes and frames and inlays in furniture. Despite its high price, manufacturers and consumers favored it because of its beautiful mottled appearance, its durability, and its organic warmth against the skin.
The French perfected the use of tortoiseshell on furniture by completely covering pieces with sheets of tortoiseshell and brass cut into intricate patterns that fit into one another, the tortoiseshell alternately forming the pattern and the ground, resulting in two types, boulle and counterboulle. André Charles Boulle, cabinetmaker to Louis XIV of France for whom this style of decoration is named, introduced and perfected marquetry combining thin inlays of tortoiseshell backed with metal or with woods and metal.
Another decorative technique, usually employed on tortoiseshell, was piqué work, in which artisans created inlaid designs using small gold or silver pins. The art reached its highest point in 17th- and 18th-century France, particularly for the decoration of smaller articles such as combs, match boxes, and snuffboxes.
To prepare tortoiseshell for decorative use, craftsmen would first separate it from the tortoise’s bony skeleton by heat. They would then flatten the shields by softening them in warm salt water and flattening them using a press. finally rasping away any irregularities. Tortoiseshell can be easily worked using heat and pressure and can be shaped on a lathe. Two pieces could be fused by use of a hot iron, but like the earlier stages, craftsmen had to be careful not to lose the color. When a craftsman completed a piece, he would polish it using various techniques.
Victorians who wished to show off their wealth would prominently display tortoiseshell items in their homes. They enjoyed tortoiseshell boxes and containers as much for their decorative quality as for their storage possibilities. During the Victorian era, artisans embellished tortoiseshell jewelry with precious stones and gold and silver. They even hand carved some pieces.
Those who collect items made with tortoiseshell must be able to differentiate between the real thing and fake or faux tortoiseshell. But it takes an experienced eye to easily tell the difference. Generally, real tortoise shell is lighter than fake examples, and when compared, the former would have more depth and layers, which is part of the reason why it’s favored for use in jewelry making.
To help distinguish real tortoiseshell from faux tortoiseshell, collectors often use a pin test. However, the person selling a tortoiseshell item might not be too keen on having someone using a hot pin or a piece of sandpaper to see whether it will smell like burned hair since markings or spots may be left on the shell afterwards. Believe it or not, faux tortoiseshell smells more like burned hair than the real thing.
Collecting real antique tortoiseshell objects and jewelry can be expensive since these items are becoming increasingly rare.
To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my site. And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.