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    What are Tortoiseshell Custom Frames?

    Frame Envy Team

    We always encourage our clients to frame for the art, but how do you frame for the art when you know your tastes and styles change over time? Do you choose the sexy, red lacquer frame that makes the art go va-va-voom? Or do you play it safe with a classic moulding that looks good with the art and multiple interior design trends? It’s a tough question. There is at least one frame that has a little intrigue and enduring style: the tortoiseshell custom frame.


    A tortoiseshell frame is timeless and handsome. Many cultures have used this traditional style over the centuries. The Romans, Japanese, Italians, French, Dutch, and others incorporated tortoiseshell patterns in furniture, frames, and small objects such as combs, jewelry boxes, and glasses. Today, tortoiseshell frames are still very popular in fashion and interior design. It never goes out of style. Thankfully, we don’t use actual turtles anymore to achieve this look (more on that later). 

    Want to learn more? Let’s dive in.

    What are Tortoiseshell Custom Frames?

    Craftsmen took the outer layer of marine turtle shells and applied it to furniture, frames, and small objects. In Looking at European Frames, Karraker writes, “The substance is relatively soft, somewhat elastic and reasonably tough…Tortoiseshell was used both as an inlay and decorative overlay on wood and in combination with other materials, such as ivory, mother-of-pearl, and brass. To enhance the richness of the surface, colors such as red or yellow were applied to the reverse of the shell before it was applied to the object being decorated.”

    Tortoiseshell was a symbol of elegance and status. As art, photography, and custom framing became more accessible and affordable in the 19th and 20th centuries, artists began to mimic tortoiseshell design in their frame finishes. They creatively painted and stained moulding to have a mottled pattern. Both the authentic tortoiseshell and painted frames were valued for their unique patterns–no two frames were alike. Because of this, antique tortoiseshell frames remain highly collectible and valuable.

    tortoiseshell custom frames

    Tortoiseshell Picture Frames Today

    Fortunately, we no longer use real shells to achieve this look. Since 1973, marine turtles have been protected under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and cannot be harvested for trade. Instead, we use a mix of veneers and plastics.

    Synthetic imitations mimic many qualities of real tortoiseshell. They’re both hard, carvable, and have a similar luster when polished. Plastic is an affordable alternative but there are a few downsides. Plastic can become distorted, cracked, or sticky. Anyone who has worn a pair of glasses for years knows how foggy or discolored plastic frames can get. 

    For this reason, many framers use veneers on their custom framing. A veneer is a thin layer of stained, painted, or lacquered wood that is applied over moulding. With a veneer, the frame has a tortoiseshell design without the ethical and environmental concerns surrounding animal products. 

    Examples of Tortoiseshell Custom Framed Art

    Tortoiseshell frames are classic and versatile. With today’s modern profiles, these patterns are a stunning bridge between antique and trendy art and frames. It works well with diplomas, maps, antique photos, artwork, modern photos, and more. 

    This design adds visual texture. Its mottled pattern changes depending on light and perspective. It looks rich and vibrant when paired with a fabric mat or french line detail. Some frames have an antique silver detail that subtly highlights and draws the viewer’s eye toward the art. We think the tortoiseshell look is sophisticated and interesting–traditional with a hint of glam.

    Ready to be inspired? Here are a few examples:

    A tortoiseshell custom frame is exquisite. It adds a level of elegance to any piece of art or interior design style. When you use a tortoiseshell custom frame, you aren’t playing it safe. You’re choosing a beautiful and timeless design that will impress any art lover.

    Interested in tortoiseshell custom frames? Check out The Intellectual, The Historic, and The Connoisseur