TORTOISESHELL. The tortoiseshell of commerce consists of the epidermic plates covering the bony carapace of the hawksbill turtle, Chelonia imbricata, the smallest of the sea turtles. The plates of the back or carapace, technically called the head, are 13 in number, 5 occupying the centre, flanked by 4 on each side. These overlap each other to the extent of one-third of their whole size, and hence they attain a large size, reaching in the largest to 8 in. by 13 in., and weighing as much as 9 oz. The carapace has also 24 marginal pieces, called hoofs or claws, forming a serrated edge round it; but these, with the plates of the plastron, or belly, are of inferior value. The plates of tortoiseshell consist of horny matter, but they are harder, more brittle, and less fibrous than ordinary horn. Their value depends on the rich mottled colours they display a warm translucent yellow, dashed and spotted with rich brown tints and on the high polish they take and retain. The finest tortoiseshell is obtained from the Eastern Archipelago, particularly from the east coast of Celebes to New Guinea; but the creature is found and tortoiseshell obtained from all tropical coasts, large supplies coming from the West Indian Islands and Brazil.
Tortoiseshell is worked precisely as horn; but, owing to the high value of the material, care is taken to prevent any waste in its working. The plates, as separated by heat from the bony skeleton, are keeled, curved, and irregular in form. They are first flattened by heat and pressure, and superficial inequalities are rasped away. Being harder and more brittle than horn, tortoiseshell requires careful treatment in moulding it into any form, and as high heat tends to darken and obscure the material it is treated at as low a heat as practicable. For many purposes it is necessary to increase the thickness or to add to the superficial size of tortoiseshell, and this is readily done by careful cleaning and rasping of the surfaces to be united, softening the plates in boiling water or sometimes by dry heat, and then pressing them tightly together by means of heated pincers or a vice. The heat softens and liquefies a superficial film of the horny material, and that with the pressure effects a perfect union of the surfaces brought together. Heat and pressure are also employed to mould the substance into boxes and the numerous artificial forms into which it is made up.
Tortoiseshell has been a prized ornamental material from very early times. It was one of the highly esteemed treasures of the Far East brought to ancient Rome by way of Egypt, and it was eagerly sought by wealthy Romans as a veneer for their rich furniture. In modern times it is most characteristically used in the elaborate inlaying of cabinet-work known as buhl furniture, and in combination with silver for toilet articles. It is also employed as a veneer for small boxes and frames. It is cut into combs, moulded into snuff-boxes and other small boxes, formed into knife-handles, and worked up into many other similar minor articles. The plates from certain other tortoises, known commercially as turtle-shell, possess a certain industrial value, but they are either opaque or soft and leathery, and cannot be mistaken for tortoiseshell. A close imitation of tortoiseshell can be made by staining translucent horn or by varieties of celluloid.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)