Tortoiseshell is one of those things, it is so insanely gorgeous and yet was extracted from the turtle in such a horrific way, that it is heartbreaking to even speak of it. Yet, this material, in its authentic form, was prized and held in high regard and used as a material for making hair combs, tea caddies, cigarette boxes, as decorative inlays on furniture, etc. before 40 years ago. This is now not lawful under The Endangered Species Act, however it is still done as some countries do not have the financial resources to enforce the mandate.
The term tortoiseshell is rather deceptive, as it is not derived from the tortoise at all, but rather the sea turtle, namely the hawksbill. It’s a natural thermoplastic, therefore it is easily molded into various forms. The blonde variety of tortoiseshell is the most rare and the most desirable. This material is prized for the ability to take a high polish and its gorgeous colouration.
Most older pieces will be genuine, the real deal, whereas, newer variations will actually be created from cellulose nitrate. You can locate older forms at auction houses and they command a high price as they should. They will typically need to be restored, as the veneer cracks over time, and there is a whole industry of restorers devoted solely to this type of work.
Courtesy of Christie’s, Pegs and Tails, Sotheby’s, Tiffany & Co., Solange Spilimbergo Volpe