by Jamie Bartlett July 21, 2021 6 min read
Few glasses styles have the longevity and classic nature of tortoiseshell.
Think of jeans, you see indigo.
Think of brogues, you envisage tan leather.
Tortoiseshell is the optical equivalent. It's a timeless classic that's spanned the decades as one of the most popular colourations for full rimmed spectacles.
But how did this material become so iconic? And does it come from real tortoises?
Sadly, tortoiseshell for spectacle making originally came from the domed dorsal of one of nature’s most endangered species.
The Hawksbill turtle.
A sombre start, I know.
Taboo like ivory or fur, you’ll have guessed that the use of real shell was eventually banned in 1973, strictly prohibiting its trade. Phew.
(Glad to get that out in the open.)
In the context of spectacle making, France still permit the use of only existing shell to make glasses frames, however global stocks are now vastly diminished.
Today, the Hawksbill turtle is amongst the most critically endangered species of animal due to the mass hunting that occurred between 1844 and 1922.
According to an article by National Geographic, in the regions of 9 million sea turtles were killed during this period.
Hawksbill vs humans
A 900 year fight for survival.
Tortoiseshell was first used by the ancient Greeks to make the soundbox of a rudimentary guitar called a Chelys. It’s domed shape and ornate pattern was equally pleasing to the eyes and ears.
Sure, what better shape to project musical notes than the shell of a tortoise? A shuddering thought.
After the Greeks, the Romans were known to have inlaid tortoiseshell into their furniture and household décor. By slicing shell into thin veneers, this was an early form of marquetry. It indicated the status of the wealthy Romans indulging at their decadent banquet tables…peppered with tortoiseshell inlays.
Later still, in Asia, craftsmen learned to flatten the shells by immersing them in boiling saltwater until they became soft enough to press flat. In fact, they got so good at working with shell, the Japanese learned to fuse pieces together using hot iron.
This workability is what made tortoiseshell so applicable for spectacle making. By adding curvature for optical lenses and a bridge bump for the nose, artisans could cut and mould the shell to suit the wearer.
Replica of the rudimentary ancient Greek instrument known as a Chelys. Tortoiseshell was used as the sound box due to its domed shape and attractive ornate pattern | Image credit: Indiegogo
An assortment of Japanese women's headpieces intricatley made from bone, wood and tortoiseshell. These items are still traditionally worn seasonally or at special occasions such as weddings | Image credit: V&A
An amber roundeye spectacle frame surrounded by pieces of real shell material. These shell sections are legally owned and used by French lunetier, Maison Bonnet | Image credit: The Parisian Gentleman
Real shell usually came from the Hawksbill, however the Green Back turtle was also used due to it's similarly mottled shell pattern. This distinctive colouration is what made shell so attractive for decorative use through the centuries. | Image credit: Robb Report
The Hawksbill wasn’t alone
Before the invention of plastic in 1907, a variety of natural materials were used for spectacle making. They needed similar properties to shell, so the alternatives often came from a variety of animals.
Vegans look away.
Ideally, the best material for frame making would've come from the surrounding environment or native animals. Better still, it could be easily cut, immersed in hot water and shaped into a spectacles frame.
If you happen to encounter any vintage frames which claim to be made of tortoiseshell, be aware that types of buffalo horn have a very strong resemblance. Shell and horn are often confused as they're so similar.
Another material commonly confused with real shell is Galalith. An early bio-material made from the protein component (casein) extracted from cow's milk that could be dyed to mimic the classic Hawksbill pattern.
Until the early 1900’s, wearing spectacles betrayed your visual impairment, rather than your sense of style.
Let’s face it; natural material frames lacked panache. Cow bone frames weren’t exactly…sexy.
This stigma was to completley change when a young Hollywood actor by the name of Harold Lloyd graced motion picture in his 1917 comedy short film ‘Over the Fence.’
Costumed as an ordinary American, his banal clothing and adornment of tortoiseshell glasses made his character humble, honest and most importantly, relatable.
Lloyd's ordinary appearance captured the zeitgeist making his character and the film a huge success.
His round eyeglasses had centre stage.
Optical fashion had begun.
With such an unexpected reception for his spectacles, Lloyd is widely recognised as the original optical trendsetter. In the 1995 journal of the American Optometric Association, an article by Byron Y. Newman states;
"For optometrists in the 1920's, he was the man who popularised the use of glasses to a population who resisted the use of spectacles. Suddenly, there he was on the silent screen demonstrating for all to see that the wearing of eyeglasses added to one's personality."
Later, following in Harold’s steps, music star Buddy Holly also iconised thick rimmed and browline glasses frames. He was immediately identifiable due to his chunky ‘horn rimmed’ glasses.
Thanks to celebrity endorsement, these thick style glasses frames were highly fashionable during the 50’s and 60’s. At last, spectacles had been 'okayed' by the famous.
As popularity grew for wearing spectacles, so did production. Were it not for the burgeoning plastic industry, optical demand would have spelled disaster for the Hawksbill turtle;
Thankfully, technology posed an ethically alternative material.
Harold Lloyd in his 1923 film "Why Worry." | Image credit: Pinterest
Harold Lloyd in his 1920 film "Haunted Spooks." | Image credit: Pinterest
Contrary to their aesthetic, Lloyd's spectacles weren't actually made from tortoiseshell and instead were made from cellulose acetate. These were easily replaced or interchanged as acetate glasses were comparatively inexpensive than real shell. Presumably, this is where the name 'fake tortoise glasses' stemmed from. | Image credit: Wikipedia
Singer Buddy Holly, circa 1957 | Image credit: Wikipedia
With the surging mid-century optical boom, natural materials like tortoiseshell were almost entirely side-lined by the mass market.
Thankfully, most if not all tortoiseshell glasses frames were being made from a bio-material known as cellulose acetate.
Instead of exploiting the shell of the increasingly endangered Hawksbill, timber and cotton pulp was used to extract the world’s most abundant natural compound; cellulose.
One third of the world’s plants consist of cellulose.
Cleverly, cellulose could be dyed and mixed to mimic tortoiseshell which could set hard and be sliced into sheets. This new alternative looks just like the real thing and can be made in a large expanse of colours, patterns and transparencies.
Great on the eyes. Even greater for the Hawksbill.
This replication of it's beautifully mottled shell meant spectacles, hair combs and jewellery and other 60's paraphernalia could be more ethically made.
At last, spectacles wearers like you could enjoy the warming tones of transparent amber, brown and black thanks to acetate. Today, this is what the vast majority of modern tortoiseshell spectacles are made from.
If you like the look of speckled spectacles, you can sleep easy knowing you're no turtle killer.
Are you kidding?
Tortoiseshell glasses remain a popular style for fully rimmed spectacles. Though not real shell anymore, the dappled tones of amber, honey and black are a classic look which suits the majority of skin tones for men and women.
Tortoiseshell is a highly versatile acetate pattern that suits many skin tones. Considered as a classic style, the naturally warm flecks of amber, brown and black compliment your eyes, hair and face.
Thanks for stopping by.
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