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Tortoiseshell
Beauty in Hand: The Art of the Hand Fan

Tortoiseshell

Tortoiseshell is a material made from the shells of larger turtles or tortoises, mainly the Green Sea Turtle and the Hawksbill Sea Turtle (currently endangered species). These turtles are commonly found in tropical waters of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Their shells were used to make a variety of accessories in the Victorian era, including jewellery and fans. To meet the demand for tortoiseshell, trade was essential to send this precious material to craftspeople around the world.

Unknown Maker, Fan, Unknown Date

This light brown feather fan features eighteen tortoiseshell sticks and a round tortoiseshell handle (figs. 9–10). A thin, black ribbon is threaded through the top of the sticks. It is unclear whether the tortoiseshell is real or synthetic. Synthetic plastics were first developed in the late nineteenth century and were used to imitate tortoiseshell.

Tortoiseshell has long been regarded as a beautiful and extraordinary material used for art objects, accessories, jewellery and other personal items, like eyeglass frames and hair combs. It was particularly noted for its use in eighteenth and nineteenth century hand-fan making.

Typically, the material was used for fan sticks due to its unique beauty, durable quality and rich colour that offset exotic or vibrant feathers, as seen on this fan. As tortoiseshell is not indigenous to North America or Europe, trade was necessary to meet demand. This trade was essential in magnifying the hand-fan market. As this was an expensive and rare substance, only the wealthy would be able to own a fan made from this material. European fan makers often customized their tortoiseshell fans with gold or silver embellishments to add prestige and artistry. As such, these fans became objects of fascination, intrigue and desire.

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Unknown Maker, Fan, Unknown Date

This fan features a handle made from tortoiseshell (figs. 11). Due to the esteem and expense of the material, the user holding this fan would have drawn attention to themselves. However, it is unclear whether this tortoiseshell is real or synthetic.

Black-brown ostrich feathers, in abundance, are attached to the sticks. Although the conventional tortoiseshell fan employs bright feathers, this fan features a darker combination. Based on the colour of the feathers, it is possible this fan was used for mourning. Yet, this may not be true; in the nineteenth century, black was also used as an indicator of social importance and affluence. In general, wealthy women would have owned multiple fans of different hues and levels of artistry depending on the event they were attending.

This umbrella (fig. 12), from the same Gordon family, also features a tortoiseshell handle (fig. 13). This adds cachet to an object used to protect oneself from the elements, like hand fans did. It is inlaid with a gold band with AMG/1902 stamped on it and engraved with a filigree pattern. The umbrella itself is made of black silk. It is possible that this use of black referenced higher social status.

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Ethics of Materials
The Dangers of Tortoishell
The Dangers of Tortoishell
The term “tortoiseshell” generally refers to the dorsal shell and belly plates taken from the Green or Hawksbill sea turtles. The use of tortoiseshell for jewellery and art dates back to pre-dynastic Egypt (3500–3100 BC) but was particularly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the 1970s there was a growing awareness of the endangerment of these two kinds of turtles. At this time, plastic imitations and laws protecting the slaughter of sea turtles for tortoiseshell contributed to the mass reduction of the material on the art market.

In addition, imitation tortoiseshell is known to be very toxic and susceptible to chemical deterioration. As it degrades, it can corrode and pollute objects in the immediate vicinity. Museum workers have been urged to take protective measures to defend themselves from exposure to artifacts containing the material or consider removing it from their collections in general.

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