What are tortoise shell glasses?

What are tortoise shell glasses?

Tortoise shell glasses are a 'full-rim' format with a frame that fully surrounds each lens. Typically, modern tortoise shell glasses frames are made of cellulose acetate with a characteristic mottled pattern of brown, amber and black. This classic pattern originated from Hawksbill turtle shells to make spectacles between the 18th and 20th century. However, the trade of 'real shell' was banned in 1973 by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).


Few glasses styles have the longevity and classic nature of tortoise shell.

Think of jeans, you see indigo.

Think of brogues, you envisage tan leather.

Tortoise shell is the optical equivalent.

It's a classic and flattering pattern that's spanned decades as one of the most popular colourations for full rimmed spectacles.

But how did this material become so iconic?


Underwater view of Hawksbill turtle

The backstory of tortoise shell glasses

Sadly, 'real shell' originally came from the domed dorsals of sea turtles.

A sombre start, I know.

Interestingly, there are 7 types of marine sea turtle, however it was mainly these two species which were favoured for their intricately patterned 'scutes'.

The most common were green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

Aesthetically speaking, you can see why this material was so highly sought after. No two carapaces (shells) were the same, with exotic streaks of colour and mottled tones in varied transparencies.

Green sea turtles are the larger of the two species, with a soft-edged shell containing subtle colours of olive green, muted yellow and flecks of black. Although these shells had a higher yield, they weren't quite as popular as the smaller hawksbill shell.

Hawksbill sea turtles are smaller in size, with a serrated-edge shell containing strongly contrasting colours of amber, brown and black. As you can see below, this pattern was much more prominent which prompted a much higher value and subsequent demand.

Comparison image of green sea turtle and hawksbill turtle shells


A thousand year fight

Tortoise shell was first used by the ancient Greeks to make the soundbox of a rudimentary guitar called a Chelys. It’s domed shape was perfect for acoustics and ornate pattern was equally pleasing to the eyes.

Wooden versions of this stringed instrument did exist, but they didn't quite possess the same beauty as tortoise shell.

After the Greeks (1st century AD) Roman craftsmen inlaid tortoise shell into luxurious furniture and household décor. By slicing the 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 tortoise shell 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.

"In Japan, tortoise shell crafting, or bekko, has been an important industry since at least the 17th century, most of it cantered in Nagasaki. Bekko objects such as hair ornaments are still being created today from stockpiled material."

Gemological Institute of America



Perfect for spectacle making

Materialistically, tortoise shell is a natural thermoplastic. This means it can be heated via flame or immersed in hot water until it becomes soft and malleable. Once cool, it sets rigid again in whichever shape intended.

For 18th century spectacle making, tortoise shell was the holy grail.

By adding curvature for optical lenses and a bridge bump for the nose, artisans could cut and mould the shell to suit the wearer. It could then be polished to showcase the incredible colours within.

With natural materials being the only option available, you can see why tortoise shell was one of the most popular. It was a truly stunning option that outrivalled its alternatives.



The Hawksbill wasn’t alone

Before the invention of plastic, a variety of natural materials were used for spectacle making. They needed similar properties to shell, so the alternatives also often came from animals.

Vegans look away.

  • Bone (cow/sheep shin or skull)
  • Leather
  • Sharkskin (shark or ray skin)
  • Wood
  • Ivory
  • Horn (

Ideally, the best material for frame making would've come from the surrounding environment or native animals. Better still, it could be easily cut, heated and shaped into a spectacle frame.

If you happen to encounter any vintage frames which claim to be made of tortoise shell, be aware that certain types of buffalo horn have a very strong resemblance. Shell and horn are often confused as they're so similar.

In fact, the term horn-rimmed glasses is used collectively for both horn and/or tortoise shell frames as they can have such strong resemblance to each other.


Greek Chelys made using a tortoise shell

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


Assortment of Japanese bridal combs made from tortoiseshell and wood

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


Round amber eyeglasses made from real tortoiseshell

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


Tortoiseshell glasses being hand sculpted with file

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



Leave those turtles alone!

For too long, spectacles were made from real tortoise shell.

It wasn't until 1973 that the trade of the material was finally banned by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

According to an article by National Geographic, in the regions of 9 million sea turtles were killed during a mass-hunting period stretching between 1844 and 1922.

Resultantly, hawksbill turtles are now one of the most critically endangered reptiles with an estimated population of 23,000 remaining.

Were there leftover shells?

Long after the CITES 1973 trade ban, residual (and legal) stockpiles of real tortoise shell remain in use for spectacles making.

France still permit the use of pre-existing shell to make glasses frames, however global stocks are now vastly diminished.

In case you're wondering, the only permitted lunetterie (spectacle makers) of real shell frames are the French Maison Bonnet. Located in Paris (and more recently London), they reportedly have in the regions of 175 kilos of hawksbill shell in their stockpile; rumoured to be the largest in the world.


Sea turtle swimming underwater above green seaweed

Moving away from real shell

As we're all now firmly aware, plastics have a poor reputation in today's eco-conscious society.

However, the invention and introduction of Bakelite in 1907 paved a new direction for the optical industry and indeed the fate of the rapidly endangered hawksbill turtle.

Amongst some of the earliest rudimentary plastics was this rather exciting new material called cellulose acetate.

Unlike it's purely synthetic older brother (Bakelite), cellulose acetate could be made as a semi-natural material.

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 tortoise shell 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 turtle.

This replication of it's beautifully mottled shell meant spectacles, hair combs and jewellery and other 60's paraphernalia could be more ethically made. 

With the surging mid-century optical boom, natural materials like tortoise shell were almost entirely side-lined by the mass market.

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 tortoise shell spectacles are made from.

(Ours included.)

If you like the look of speckled spectacles, you can sleep easy knowing you're no turtle killer.



The man who popularised tortoise glasses 

Harold Lloyd leaning back in chair smoking cigarette

Until the early 1900’s, wearing spectacles betrayed your visual impairment, rather than your sense of style.

Everybody could see you needed optical correction, which for some, made them look and feel... a bit  nerdy.

This stigma was to completely 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 tortoise shell glasses made his character humble, honest and most importantly, relatable.

Lloyd's perfectly 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 thick frame glasses, 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 became 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.

Cellulose acetate.



Harold Lloyd sitting on ground making funny face wearing hat suit and glasses

Harold Lloyd in his 1923 film "Why Worry." | Image credit: Pinterest



Actor Harold Lloyd with his hair standing up wearing his round spectacles

Harold Lloyd in his 1920 film "Haunted Spooks." | Image credit: Pinterest


Actor Harold Lloyd crouching beside child pointing gun at him

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 smiling wearing his thick rimmed glasses

Singer Buddy Holly, circa 1957 | Image credit: Wikipedia


Tortoise shell glasses FAQ's


Will tortoise shell glasses suit me?

Yes,  tortoise shell glasses have been popular for decades due to their versatility and ability to suit the vast majority of skin tones and complexions. The natural pattern and warming colour variations in the frame make them a flattering choice for many individuals.


Who looks good in tortoise shell glasses?

Anyone can look good in tortoise shell glasses. The naturally warming hues compliment a wide range of skin tones and complexions. However, they'll particularly flatter you if you have very pale skin and fair hair. The pattern and colour variations in the frame can also add dimension to one's face, making them a popular choice among individuals looking to make a statement with their eyewear.



Who should wear tortoise shell glasses?

Whilst tortoise shell glasses suit literally everyone, the shape, style and thickness of the frame plays a much larger role. Thin rimmed tortoise shell glasses will have the least contrast on your face, therefore would be ideal if you prefer an understated look. Conversely, thick frame tortoise shell glasses will be very bold on your face, therefore frame shape and frame-fit are much more crucial.


Why are tortoiseshell glasses so popular?

The popularity of tortoiseshell glasses is rooted in their inherent versatility. Since the 1940's, tortoise shell frames surged in popularity thanks to celebrity endorsement from the likes of actor Harold Lloyd and musician Buddy Holly. Approved by these influential trendsetters, the mass market pivoted towards thick frame glasses as an opportunity for self expression, style and individualism. For these reasons, it's why hipsters favour them so highly as a popular glasses style.


Serious looking man with blue shirt and brown suit jacket wearing round tortoise spectacle frames

Do tortoiseshell glasses suit grey hair?

Yes,  tortoise shell glasses can look fantastic with grey hair. The natural blend of colours in the frame adds a touch of warmth to your appearance without being too stark or overpowering. Additionally, since ageing tends to result in wrinkling, the soft browns and muted tones of tortoise shell glasses help draw attention to your eyes as the main focal point of your face.

Hopefully you found this article helpful. Please check out our other style blogs for more optical inspiration. Thanks for stopping by.