Tortoiseshell is a lovely natural material used for a wide variety of decorative and practical objects, often used decoratively on grooming accessories. Declining sea turtle populations have put an end to the trade in tortoiseshell in most regions.
Tortoiseshell is a material that is so well known that the word has passed into the language to describe a particular range and pattern of colours. Tortoiseshell is a mottled brown and yellow material that comes from the shell of a sea-going turtle.
To be precise, this hard, brittle, translucent material comes from the curved horny shields that form the shell of the hawksbill turtle. Its marbled multi-coloured pattern has long
been valued for making jewellery and other decorative items. The ancient Roman imported it from Egypt for use as a furniture veneer.
More usually it is cut into combs, moulded into boxes or used as a veneer for mirror frames, caskets and other objects. When used in conjunction with brass it is known as boulle, and in this form it was widely used in France for furniture facings and inlay from the 17th century onwards. The French became specialists in tortoiseshell work, and incorporated the material in trays, snuff boxes, jewel cases and other decorative pieces. The craft soon spread through Europe.
Heat is used to separate the tortoiseshell from the turtle's bony skeleton, and heat and pressure are then used in combination to flatten the curved shields. It is cut to the desired shapes with a knife or a fine saw. If it needs to be bent this is easily accomplished by again using heat and pressure, and it can be further shaped on a lathe. Thin sheets of tortoiseshell have a degree of flexibility and they can be almost transparent.
A missing section of tortoiseshell can be replaced with an appropriate piece cut from a sheet to the right size and shape. As with repairing marquetry, it is wise to use a template so you get the dimensions exactly right. If, however the piece is a little too large, it can be filed or sanded down to fit. use fine emery paper to smooth any rough edges.
Broken tortoiseshell objects can be glued with epoxy resin. This is fine for pieces that are purely decorative but is unlikely to be a durable repair for items in everyday use.
A wash in warm, soapy water is usually enough to clean plain tortoiseshell articles but those that are particularly grubby can be cleaned with a very fine abrasive powder such as jeweller's rouge or whiting.
Real tortoiseshell was never easy to come by and was therefore relatively expensive. Since the 1920s it has often been replaced by plastics which can be made to resemble it almost exactly. The backs of mirrors and brushes are often of imitation tortoiseshell.
Tortoiseshell is often inlaid with diamante', which occasionally becomes loose and is lost. Missing stones can be replaced with new ones which can be bought in various sizes from specialist craft and bead shops. Take the article with you so that you can match the size. Use a clear quick-bonding adhesive for the best results.
To clean a tortoiseshell piece that is set with diamante' or inlaid with other materials, brush it gently with a solution of spirit soap and water, so as not to disturb the adhesive. The surface can be polished to a shine with microcrystalline wax and a lint-free cloth.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
• Bad scratches can be treated with a paste made from jeweller's rouge and a drop or two of olive oil. Brush the paste off when it has
• Small drops can be filled with matching enamel paint.
• If you have a valuable tortoiseshell object, always keep it wrapped in a soft cloth to prevent scratching.
• To keep tortoiseshell looking its best, polish it frequently.