Nagasaki tortoiseshell is now a rare and valuable tortoiseshell


Nagasaki tortoiseshell with beautiful form and color

Nagasaki tortoiseshell is an exquisite handicraft primarily produced in Nagasaki City, Nagasaki Prefecture. The raw material employed in its creation is the shell of the Taimai turtle, an exquisite marine turtle fondly referred to as the “jewel of the sea”. In addition to the ubiquitous black and amber tortoiseshell pattern, there is an exceedingly rare single-color pattern consisting only of amber. This one-of-a-kind characteristic attracts many aficionados of tortoiseshell, enamored with its distinctive beauty.

What is tortoiseshell in Japan?

Tortoiseshell craftsmanship in Japan boasts a rich history dating back to the Nara period (710-794), having been introduced from China. It is even included in the treasure hall of Shosoin, the Imperial Storehouse of Japan.

Tortoiseshell work is fashioned from the shell of the tortoiseshell turtle, or tortoiseshell mao. Highly skilled tortoiseshell craftsmen laminate the shells of rare tortoiseshell turtles individually, cut out shapes from them, and meticulously polish them to create a singular, stunning piece of tortoiseshell work.

Due to its property of responding to body temperature and conforming to the body’s contact points, tortoiseshell is an ideal material for eyeglasses and accessories. Its directional fibers also make it highly valued as a hairpin due to its non-shifting nature. Despite its hefty price, tortoiseshell treasure boats or ship figurines made of tortoiseshell remain very popular.

Tortoiseshell treasure boat
source: Marutomi

What is special for Nagasaki tortoiseshell

Nagasaki tortoiseshell is distinguished by its intricate and meticulous techniques, whereby the thickness and coloration are exquisitely adjusted through the expertise and artistry of the craftsmen. Tortoiseshell is crafted not only into small trinkets such as hair ornaments and necklaces, but also into larger items such as treasure ships. However, the procurement of Nagasaki tortoiseshell materials is no longer feasible owing to the prevailing ban on international trade in taimai under the Washington Convention, rendering it a precious commodity. As a result, certain products hold a premium value and are traded at exorbitant prices.

Manufacturing Method and Process

1. Design

The initial stage involves the creation of a schematic representation. As the primary material is organic, there are several limitations regarding dimensions, density, and other associated factors during the fabrication process.

2. Fabric Selection

From among the dorsal carapace, claws, and ventral carapace of the taimai, they select the appropriate fabric for the piece and apply a ground pattern to it.

3. Cutting and turning

Cut the fabric according to the pattern using a circular saw. Cut out the material according to the pattern while maintaining the beauty of the material, such as the color and pattern.

4. Cutting

A file or small knife is employed in order to eliminate impurities and contaminants from the material, followed by a meticulous smoothing process of its surface.

5. fire hammer

To prevent misalignment when joining the pieces together, a temporary attachment is made before the pressing process.

6. Pressing

The fabric is made to a certain thickness by compressing. It is called “the art of water and heat” because water and heat are used without using adhesives.

7. pressing iron

The processed shell is attached to a wooden
mold with a hot iron (egg white is used between the shell and the wooden mold
for adhesion).

8. Carving

Carving is done according to the design. This is a process that requires skillful carving in accordance with the preliminary drawing.

9. Polishing

Tortoiseshell is polished to give it a soft amber luster unique to tortoiseshell.

10. Assembly

The piece is completed by attaching metal fittings and assembling the parts in harmony with the overall design.

Nagasaki bekkou
source: Daimaru Kobe

Key points

Nagasaki tortoiseshell was once widely sought after as a decorative item owing to its striking beauty. However, as a result of the Washington Convention, its production and availability have considerably decreased. This has led to the closure of Ezaki Tortoiseshell, Japan’s oldest and most traditional tortoiseshell specialty store, after being in business for over 300 years. The store, which had been producing imperial articles for the Imperial Household since 1872 and was even appointed by the Ministry of the Imperial Household in May 1900, has now been beset by adversity. Currently, the value of pre-existing tortoiseshell products is appreciating, with certain collectors treating them as antique items.


Let's share this post !