Tortoiseshell, or tortie in a commercial sense, is a mottled brown, black and sometimes orange pattern, often made of plastic, which is used to make a variety of products. These may include the frames of regular eyeglasses or sunglasses, buttons, and a number of decorative and useful hair clips and designs. Tortoiseshell bases its design on the shell markings of the hawksbill turtle, and initially it was made from the turtle.
Many decorative items were once made from the shells of turtles. There are frames for pictures in the Renaissance, tea sets, and jewelry boxes. The earliest use of tortoiseshell dates back to decorative uses in China and Japan. Often, a whole turtle shell was lacquered and used as a bowl. The Ancient Greeks and early Romans also used it in jewelry, to back hairbrushes and in hair ornaments.
Unfortunately, trade in true tortoiseshell had a devastating effect on the hawksbill turtle population. Though the hawksbill exists worldwide, primarily living in coral reefs, it is considered to be severely endangered. Concern for the possible extinction of this species, and also relative difficulty in harvesting the shells, led in the early 20th century to celluloid (an early version of plastic) exhibiting the desirable design. By the 1920s and 1930s, tortoiseshell frames for eyeglasses were primarily made of celluloid and not the actual turtle shell. Today, few areas export true tortoiseshell, in hopes the species will survive if it is not hunted.
In the 1950s, tortoiseshell sunglasses became very popular. In this sense, though the pattern has a long history, sunglasses with these frames are often considered to be retro 50s. This is especially true when they are manufactured by companies like Ray-Ban®.
Tortoiseshell hair ornaments are also ancient in pattern. Today, the plastic version of these are cheaply purchased at any local drug store, as are knock-off sunglasses. There are a variety of clips, barrettes, headbands, scrunchies, sticks and bobbie pins with a tortoiseshell design. Many women enjoy the mottled colors, which tend to blend well with brunette hair, or make a nice contrast to blonde, red or black hair. Some cloth manufacturers have also made fabric with the mottled pattern. Any personal ornamental use of tortoiseshell has never been completely out of style, but like most things in fashion, tortie patterns may be more or less popular depending on the season.
Popularity of this pattern is not exclusive to clothing or ornaments. Several cat breeds exhibit tortie colors. These are often an unevenly distributed mix of orange, brown and black. There are Persian and Shorthair torities, and a variety of mix-breed cats with the pattern. Interestingly, few male cats have this coloring and are considered aberrations. The markings occur most often on female cats and are considered a sex-linked inherited trait.