COLLECTING
Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Tortoiseshell
Decorative box of tortoiseshell with silver inlay. Courtesy of Maison Bonnet.

Decorative box of tortoiseshell with silver inlay. Courtesy of Maison Bonnet.

 

Tortoiseshell has long been a controversial item mainly because it is produced from the shell of the hawksbill turtle, an endangered species. It has been used since antiquity for the manufacturing of instruments, such as the Greek lyre, decorative accents on Roman furniture, marquetry of thin inlays as in Louis XIV furniture, and small luxury items such a snuff-boxes, frames, and combs. The material’s reflections, from dark brown to blonde, and its translucency make it exciting and sought after. The limited supply of the tortoise shell (due to the 1970s ban of its trade in large quantities) makes the material ever more precious. As a consequence, the knowledge of how to work it is slowly disappearing. From about 200 documented artisans at the beginning of the 20th century, a handful remain today preserving a craft that is itself nearing extinction.

Maison Bonnet is a French specialty store that manufactures frames made of tortoiseshell, horn, and acetate. Eyeglasses at Maison Bonnet are custom-made and handmade, which explain the wait of about 5 to 12 weeks for each order. The Maison’s master craftsman, Christian Bonnet, is also a restorer of fine art objects and antiques made of tortoiseshell.

 

© Thomaï Serdari