TORTISESHELL: Real or Faux What is in your Collection?

by Judith Coebly, Plank Road #236

It is important to be able to determine if your find is a piece of real or faux tortoiseshell. The tortoiseshell is protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.It is even illegal to sell the “real” on EBay.

TortiseshellrealorfauxWhat is tortoiseshell anyway? This translucent shell (really a hornlike substance) is from the back and belly of a sea turtle called the hawksbill. It is very expensive and therefore manufactured and sold as real.

So how do you know what you are about to buy or already have? Apply these steps of analysis to help you with this:

  • STYLE: If the object is light and dainty (real); heavy and thick (faux)
  • FLEXIBILITY: Stiff and rigid (real); flexible (faux)
  • MICROSCOPIC EXAM: 3 dimensional quality showing growth rings (real); pigmentation on surface (faux) –small holes showing weevil damage (real); no small holes (faux)
  • DECORATION: Decorations embedded without adhesive; with metal framework (real); set in pre-drilled holes (faux)
  • FRICTION AND HEAT TEST: black mixture and odor of burned hair if tested with hot needle or rubbed with emery paper (real); no odor (faux)

The collection of this beautiful shell is much desired but has its dark side. The suffering of the animal and the cruel trade is unspeakable. The faux tortoiseshell items of today are comparable in appearance, superior in durability, and more reasonable. You can collect and wear “faux” with a clear conscience.

Based on information from Comb: Its Development and History by Robert Hale.