Tortoiseshell

Semi-transparent or translucent material of mottled patterns of brown pigmentation, obtained from the enlarged scales or plates that form the protective outer shell of certain species of tropical and sub-tropical marine turtles. These scales are joined to form the carapace or back and the plastron or belly of the turtle. The plates from the carapace are heavily pigmented in shades of dark brown, amber and red, whereas those of the plastron are usually clear and yellow in colour and provide ‘blonde’ plates. The three species of turtle associated with providing tortoiseshell for decorative art objects are the Hawksbill turtle (Chelone imbricata), which provides the finest scales, the Loggerhead (Thalassochelys caretta) and the Green turtle (Chelone mydas). The plates from these turtles vary considerably in colour, size and working characteristics. The shell of some land tortoises has also been used to make objects, but ‘tortoiseshell’ refers almost exclusively to the scales from marine turtles.
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© Grove Art / OUP

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