A Speedy Guide to Everything Tortoiseshell
Since leopard print has most definitely achieved new-neutral status, the mottled brunette and blonde motif known as tortoiseshell is next in line for a revival. And it’s got a worthy backer in JJ Matchett, an Atlanta-based jeweler who turned her love of vintage costume jewelry into a sleek collection of earrings and hair clips in her iterations on the pattern. JJ’s obsession with history also makes her the perfect person to shell out (har) wisdom on the subject—and, spoiler alert: No turtles were harmed in the making of these statement hoops.
IMITATION IS BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL
The first thing you need to know about the coffee-and-cream colored stuff JJ uses: It has no relation to the cute amniotes in your local pond (using real tortoiseshell was banned in 1973). “It is very important to differentiate between working with true tortoiseshell and tortoiseshell acetate, which is the technical term for what we all use today,” JJ explains. “Believe it or not, I've received a few tersely worded emails and messages from people thinking I deal in actual tortoiseshell!”
IT GROWS ON TREES (KIND OF)
To create smooth, colored sheets of acetate, manufacturers process wood pulp into a paste and dye each batch different colors, dry it, and cut it into cubes—which are then pressed and rolled to create long sheets of patterns. “The tortoiseshell acetate I source is super high-quality and non-petroleum–based, which is much better for the environment (a really big deal for me!). It comes from a renewable energy source and is lightweight and strong. The better quality the base is, the wider the range is for transparency, rich colors, and finishes,” says JJ.
ALL PATTERNS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
Though you probably use the word “tortoise” as a catchall for one pattern, there’s really a whole spectrum, from shiny to matte, dark to light, and super-swirly to almost solid. As JJ says, “The evolution of tortoise jewelry has been stagnant forever, so it’s fun to highlight all the different types. But I also have to take that in account when planning a piece—if I were to take a tortoise that has large color variations and cut it up pretty small, then I’d end up with one mostly tan piece and one brown piece. On the other hand, if there are a lot of colors, I might get four or five colors on one earring that make it really hard to match it to another. So, I like to work with smaller variations that are consistent and stay true to my minimalist style.”
VINTAGE VERSIONS CAN BE SUPER VALUABLE
When she first starting tracking down uncut chunks of the speckled stuff, JJ relied on eBay, but she quickly had to get more resourceful. “I was scouring the internet for weeks with an Italian translating app in hand to find more and more sources for materials because all the best manufacturers are based there,” she remembers. Now she works directly with trusted boot-country factories for her regular supply but always keeps an eye out for overlooked caches—she’s currently in search of anything nineties. “Last year I found 400 pairs of assorted deadstock Benetton and Saint Laurent eyeglasses with demo lenses that were forgotten about in a closed-down opticians office, and it was a huge score. A lot of this stuff gets overlooked, so it’s fun thing to hunt for.”
CUTTING AND POLISHING IS KEY—BUT UPKEEP IS EASY
Once the raw sheets (which measure no more than ⅓ inch thick) arrive in JJ’s studio in Georgia, she uses traditional jewelry techniques to bring her pieces to life: “Small batches and samples are saw-cut by hand and placed in a small tumbler for a few days. I use a buffing wheel and liquid finishing products to smooth them out perfectly. Larger batches are laser-cut and polished via polishing wheel, to make sure each color fleck really achieves its full potential.” After the piece is made, though, it’s very low-maintenance—just keep it dry and wipe it off with a cloth if it starts to get a little grungy. Acetate happens to be hypoallergenic, too!