Operculum and Tortoise Shell Jewelry

This second in a series of four posts about operculum jewelry focuses on the popular stylistic combination of opercula with tortoise shell, and here’s where things start to get murky. Although the combination was certainly not unknown in the Victorian era, it continued into the 20th century and beyond. It was discovered fairly early on that genuine tortoise shell could be effectively (or at least, effectively enough) imitated by various plastics. This was – or should have been – good news for the turtles but it creates something of a quagmire when selling or buying such pieces nowadays, especially online.

Real tortoise shell comes from the hawksbill and certain other sea turtles. The hawksbill is now a critically endangered species and a ban on the sale of real tortoise shell was enacted in the 1970s. Well before that point, however, less expensive imitations were developed. The first faux tortoiseshell pieces were made of celluloid, a material whose history dates all the way back to the 1860s (see Vintage Plastic Jewelry: What It Is and Isn’t for an overview of the different synthetics). In fact, some of the imitation materials are so good that it takes some very modern technology indeed to identify them, although a microscope can help in many instances. There are also many examples of faux tortoise that are superficially similar enough to confuse anyone not terribly familiar with the real thing (which I readily admit that I am not!)

This means that often a claim of “real tortoiseshell” versus faux or imitation tortoise needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt — in both directions, because sometimes a seller will claim faux turtle when it isn’t, in order to sidestep a selling venue site prohibition against the real thing! There is the smell test, of course, but most people are unwilling to start sticking hot pins willy-nilly into pieces of jewelry….especially if there’s any chance that it might be made of cellulose nitrate which is spectacularly flammable. But it’s undeniable that opercula and tortoise shell make a very attractive combination with the various greens and browns enhancing one another.

The examples shown below are presented with no assertion as to whether the tortoise component is real or faux, or the age of the piece other than two in particular: one almost certainly antique and the other certainly (and painfully) modern. By the way, because there seems to be no definitive answer to whether the proper form is one word or two (‘tortoise shell’ vs ‘tortoiseshell’) I’m just going to say “tortoise” from now on! 🙂


01 operculum tortoise necklaceThe first example is a necklace/bracelet set, elegant in its simplicity. The necklace is 16 3/4″ long and the opercula are slightly graduated, with the smaller two at the back and the largest (being subtly oval in shape rather than circular) at the center. The individual operculum/tortoise links are about 32mm (1 1/4″) in diameter.



02 operculum tortoise braceletThe matching bracelet is 7″ long, with the links being 7/8″ in diameter.



03a operculum tortoise earrings03bThese earrings show a different method of setting the operculum into the tortoise mounting. No details as to the metal (silver? silverplate? nickel?); the length was quoted as being 4cm (slightly over 1.5″).



04 operculum and tortoise necklaceNo details were given about this somewhat unusual necklace with tortoise “plates” in a curved teardrop shape. I have no idea what this shape is officially called but back in the Sixties I always called it a “paisle” (everybody wore paisley back then) so I guess a paisle it is – here on this blog, anyway!



05 operculum tortoise birds cloak fastenerThe seller of this item represented it as a 19th century cloak brooch, which it probably is. The birds are connected by a chain from which a pair of opercula-on-tortoise drops also descend. The tiny rivets attaching the clasps to the birds can be discerned on the outer third of each wing. Unfortunately this was the only photograph and no dimensions were given.



06 operculum and blond tortoise braceletHere’s another piece using the “prong” attachment method, for a 7″ long bracelet. Each station is about 1″ square. Is this real blonde tortoise or an imitation? My very uneducated guess is that it’s probably faux, but perhaps some expert collectors will weigh in.



07 floral motif operculum and tortoise necklaceHere’s the floral shape again, in a rather long (20″!) necklace of nineteen graduated operculum/tortoise links. In this piece the operculum appears to be set into or on top of the tortoise “flowers” rather than using the prong/tab method.



08 teardrop shape operculum and tortoise earringsSpeaking of earrings, here is a pair clearly made in the 1930s or later because it uses a clip back. These are fairly long at 2 1/4″ overall (top to bottom.)



09 operculum and faux tortoise tourist souvenir necklaceThis necklace is an example of the many inexpensive pieces of “tourist jewelry” that continue to be made using operculum shells and faux tortoise… and therein lies the problem with trying to “date” operculum jewelry, other than the Victorian era pieces that were set in actual gold (typically 9k). Although most vintage/modern pieces don’t use low-carat gold anymore, some designers do use sterling and also copy some of the popular 19th century mountings as well. Obviously if a piece contains actual real tortoise shell it was made before the 1970s, but how much before is anyone’s guess if other age-indicators are lacking.

The next post will take a look at another popular operculum-jewelry style.

Previous posts in this series:
Antique Victorian Operculum Jewelry

  4 comments for “Operculum and Tortoise Shell Jewelry

  1. April 22, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Fantastic article with so much information! Well written & researched. Love those “evil eye” pieces and the tortoise just makes it that much more special!

  2. February 13, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    My grandmother had a necklace of silver and operculum that my grandfather gave her from Mexico. In the early 80s, an appraiser valued it at almost $900. But I see them selling for under $100 on ebay and etsy now. Have they lost their value?

    • February 13, 2020 at 12:36 pm

      Appraisers almost always overvalue items compared to what the owner could actually get for it in the real-world marketplace (unless one is talking about art or genuine antiques, and sometimes also even then.) They usually assume the appraisal is for insurance purposes (replacement in case of loss or damage) unless you specifically tell them otherwise. Another factor is that during the 1980s, the internet marketplace did not exist; there were no wholesalers selling bulk quantities of newly harvested operculum shells on ebay or etsy. Back then, many people had never seen operculum jewelry unless they inherited an antique piece or had traveled to a place where it was available in local shops. So in that respect, yes, operculum jewelry (other than true antique pieces set in either gold or sterling) has lost its value in the marketplace compared to the 1980s but that is a function of its much wider availability now versus then.

      • L Z
        July 7, 2020 at 8:47 pm

        Thank you for the very helpful reply. I didn’t like the look of the necklace, so I donated it.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: