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The History of Tortoiseshell Glasses

Above photo: 'Eye Preservers' circa 1830, courtesy of the Opthalmic Antiques International Collectors Club

There are few frames that are as classically stylish as the tortoiseshell or that have spanned so many decades while managing to remain fashionable and current. The label ‘tortoiseshell’ has come to represent any glasses which have the mottled pattern but where did the name actually come from?

Shell frames1830, courtesy of the Opthalmic Antiques International Collectors Club

Animal lovers will be horrified to know that the original tortoiseshell did indeed come from the shell of actual tortoises. Like so many things, the love of tortoiseshell is rumoured to have started with the Ancient Greeks, who noticed how beautiful the patterns on their shells were and began to prize it as a decorative item. It is claimed that at first the material was mainly used to make the bodies of stringed instruments such as the lyre, as not only did it make the sound from the strings sound more superior, but it also made them look nice, imbuing the instrument and owner with the high status they would have had by owning it. Some say that the Romans then followed suit a couple of centuries later, where rich Romans decided that a tortoiseshell veneer would really add a touch of class to their day beds, sofas and dining couches, which they could really show off at all of their feast days, when they opened their houses to guests and neighbours.

By the time the first century arrived, tortoiseshell had cemented itself as a favourite of the wealthy and was even listed in the book ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,’ where the writer gave advice on the best turtle species for decoration, the ‘Hawksbill’ and where to find it. This species is still unfortunately endangered today. However, the Museum Curator of the College of Optometrists, Neil Handley pointed out that any use of the tortoise in ancient times is probably a red herring. Yet the material “turtleshell” (misnamed as tortoiseshell) has a history of its own that is quite separate and that in fact, tortoiseshell is eminently unsuitable for most of the uses described above!

During the Middle Ages, letter types decreased in size so around the 13th century, people became more literate and started to look for a way to read more easily, and glasses came more widely into use. These glasses are very different from the ones we wear today and were clipped on with no support for the ears. Surprisingly few examples of these still exist, yet amazingly, a pair was excavated from a medieval toilet in a German monastery and now reside in the British Library. You guessed it – part of them are made of tortoiseshell! This is true as I have been lucky enough to view the photographs, so we know that it was certainly used as a material for glasses as early as this.

In the Renaissance, frames became more elaborate and elegant, with curling and rounded shapes made out of whalebone and tortoiseshell. These materials were particularly attractive as they were pliable and durable. Its popularity grew and in the 18th century, tortoiseshell began to be used to make many more products. The chief cabinet maker to Louis XIV, Andre Charles Boulle was one of the leaders of this movement, as he began to use the plastic in his furniture. He wanted to inject some luxury into his designs and invented a way of incorporating thin inlays backed with metal to decorate smaller items such as snuff boxes. This process is still named after him today.

Casein frames1920s, courtesy of the Opthalmic Antiques International Collectors Club. Casein was a form of plastic made from milk!

At the turn of the century, the popularity of tortoiseshell had not waned but imitation ‘tortoiseshell’ made from a plastic substitute originated in the late 19th century and was becoming more popular, not for any animal welfare reasons but because it was cheaper. By the 1920s, eyeglasses were no longer just practical, but they were fashionable; they were quickly becoming a must-have luxury item and of course, tortoiseshell were top of the wish list for every young stylish flapper girl and her man about town.

Casein frames1930s, courtesy of the Opthalmic Antiques International Collectors Club

Over the next few decades, British glasses designer Oliver Goldsmith capitalised on this trend and supplied glasses to the stars. Some of the glasses he handcrafted in his London workshop can be seen in the V&A Museum today, and it is easy to see why people fell in love with it as a frame material. It seems that people couldn’t get enough of it and the tortoise population could no longer take it. Thankfully, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species intervened and using tortoiseshell became prohibited in many parts of the world.

Popular 1950s style frames in tortoiseshell, courtesy of the Opthalmic Antiques International Collectors Club

However, in the 1980s, a synthetic tortoiseshell which was invented out of plastic and acetate, in styles such as ‘Havana’ and ‘Bourbon’ became more popular and glasses designers also began to experiment with using the same pattern with more bright colours too. To confuse matters, however, real turtleshell does itself qualify as a naturally-occurring plastic, so trying to differentiate frame materials is fraught with pitfalls. It is difficult to draw a distinction between real and synthetic shell. The 80s is when the fashion for shell frames began to take a knock. Just like faux fur, some people felt that it stood for something unacceptable, even when it was only imitation.

As Neil Handley says, “using real shell has NOT been prohibited across the world. There are restrictions in participating countries on its export (either in raw or worked form), but it is perfectly legal to use existing stocks of the material and several manufacturers will still produce a bespoke shell frame for you although they tend not to shout about it. Although imitation shells can be very convincing visually, in other respects (e.g. in durability and non-allergenic properties) they are not a patch on the real thing.”

As the tortoiseshell pattern is so timeless, you can find it in any shape frame, click here to see our sophisticated selection of tortoiseshell glasses available from Retropeepers.

We would love to see some selfies of our customers wearing them so don’t forget to tag @retropeepers.

For more information on Neil’s work and the College of Optometrists see:




Mar 17, 2023

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