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Six Classic Tortoiseshell Optical Glasses

By Guan Tan

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When it's called 'tortoiseshell', the design literally draws from the speckled patterns of a tortoise's shell. We know it as the run-of-the-mill eyewear design now. Yet, this seemingly ordinary design boasts an interesting tale from history. 

The use of tortoises' hard shells dates back to ancient civilisations. The hawksbill sea turtle was particularly sought-after. The Greeks made it into musical instruments. The Japanese carved accessories and decorative pieces accompanying the kimono – hair combs, hair pins, necklaces –and ornamental art pieces. The Chinese carved scriptures on the inside of these shells. 

Quite like the natural veneer of leather, tortoiseshell was coveted for the reptile's rarity and its striking colours – alternating shades of white, grey, brown, and black. 

It was later in the 1900s that plastic replicas were introduced, saving the endangered turtles from further poaching. In 1952, tortoiseshell inched back into trend with Ray-Bans' introduction of plastic tortoiseshell wayfarers.

Today, the distinct tortoiseshell pattern is most commonly recreated out of acetate. A regular gradient of browns is first layered in plastic. Later, the plastic sheet is shaved into shape and assembled. This is perhaps, one of the two dominant methods of today's eyewear production. 

American author Franz Leibowitz is perhaps the most recognised champion for tortoiseshell glasses. A couple of years she realised that the tortoiseshell glasses were back on trend – one that doesn't seem to be dissipating. She revealed in an interview, "I went to a fashion show during fashion week, and everyone there had on my eyeglasses."