Seeing Through Tortoiseshell Glasses

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Trade in tortoiseshell – or more properly, sea turtle shell – was banned in 1977 under the conservation treaty known as CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Beloved for thousands of years as a natural thermoplastic for everything from hair combs to furniture inlay, turtle shell in its endless varieties is beautiful, versatile, and feels warm and smooth against the skin.

I found a 2010 news item on a specialty manufacturer of tortoiseshell eyeglasses. The article claims that the fourth-generation shop uses only legal turtle shell. The current web site itself makes no such claim, even if the company is likely very careful to use legal shells. A pair of custom-made eyeglasses, handmade from turtle shell, can cost up to USD 39,000.*

Unfortunately, the sea turtles of the world don’t reproduce quickly enough and in enough numbers to keep up with the ongoing demand for their shells. Their numbers are also diminished by the usual suspects when it comes to marine life threats: habitat loss, fishing and pollution. Six of the seven sea turtle species are endangered and protected under international agreements.

Five kinds of tortoise shell (1767) Source: Leitner/Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Museum für Naturkunde
Five kinds of tortoise shell (1767)
Source: Leitner/Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Museum für Naturkunde

When the trade ban began in 1977, there were hundreds of metric tons of turtle shell already harvested and stockpiled for further manufacture and sale. Creating artefacts from real turtle shell requires a high degree of artisanal skill. Much like the stockpiles of banned ivory, the turtle shell stocks continue to be used for manufacture and sale, usually with the caveat that the shell in question is from turtles that were harvested ‘pre-ban’.

There are countless good alternatives to using turtle shell, from horn to various plastics. Meanwhile, illegal harvesting and trade continues because the demand remains.

Artist: Mao Fujimoto via spoon-tamago
Artist: Mao Fujimoto via spoon-tamago

Like any number of other animal parts increasingly valued as the animals themselves go extinct, as long as tortoiseshell is a product highly prized for exclusivity, there will be someone supplying that demand. Vintage tortoiseshell eyeglass frames can be found online, usually starting at well over USD 1000 for a pair.

Seeing the world through genuine tortoiseshell glasses, for those who desire them and wear them, strikes me as a variation on the old idiom of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Ever the optimist, the wearer sees a world with him or herself at the happy center,  where modern considerations take a backseat to outdated tradition; a place in which the fulfillment of their desires is tantamount and entirely worth endangering some of the most ancient creatures on the planet.

It’s World Turtle Day.

Photo: Roger Hooper/WWF
Photo: Roger Hooper/WWF

Here’s a good, concise post on turtles around the world, and here’s a look at turtle shell trade from the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

*It’s only fair to note that the eyeglass company states that it donates 1-2% of its profits to turtle conservation projects.

Source: WWF
Source: WWF