Tortoiseshell picks. Feature article. Reworked.

Tortoiseshell picks| Feature Article | “Save the Turtles!”

Hawksbill Turtle

Please be informed this is a reworked (ahem) article at the request of Andy Highfield.

Popular amongst flatpickers, genuine tortoiseshell picks are rumoured to produce a different tone to plastic or nylon picks. However, there is still much confusion over the legality of such items.

What are tortoiseshell picks?

These are picks made from the keratin scutes (shells) of specific marine turtles, and not from the scutes from terrestrial tortoises. All marine turtles are endangered and have been listed on Appendix 1 of the CITES convention since 1994.

CITES convention?

CITES stands for: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It is an international agreement between governments, to ensure trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Offical CITES websites:
CITES website
Appendices info

So what’s Appendix 1?

Appendix I consists of species that are threatened with extinction and are affected by trade. Trade in wild-caught specimens of these species is illegal. It may be permitted only in exceptional licensed circumstances.

There are approximately 800 species on Appendix 1 including all marine turtles, the gorilla and the Jaguar.

Why are marine turtles on Appendix 1?

Exploitation for tortoiseshell has caused the decline of several species, most notably, the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

Tortoise shell was widely used in the 60s and 70s in the manufacture of combs, sunglasses and knitting needles. It was attractive because of its natural beautiful, durability and organic warmth against the skin.

It was used in guitar picks because it can be easily worked, has excellent durability – tortoiseshell picks can be used for years.

It is illegal to own a tortoiseshell pick?Tortoiseshell haircomb

Possession of a tortoiseshell pick is not offence. So it is entirely legal to re-work an antique 1930’s tortoiseshell box to make picks. However, it is an offense to sell or transport those reworked picks internationally (without permits).

Sales of any tortoiseshell product made after 1947 is illegal. Seizures are a common occurrence worldwide. A survey of 2 US fish and wildlife service offices revealed over 5,000 tortoiseshell guitar picks alone.

Here’s what the UK CITES management authority has to say on this:

“As you are probably aware, worked items made from tortoiseshell that acquired before 1 June 1947 do not require Article 10 certificates to allow them to be used for any commercial purpose –  which would include sale. However, if a pre-1947 worked item is subsequently re-worked after 1 June 1947, then the derogation would not apply and an individual Article 10 certificate would be required. Anyone selling such  re-worked items without an Article 10 certificate would be committing an offence under Regulation 8(1) of the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997 and, if convicted, could face up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.”
Roy Pitt
Enforcement Co-ordinator
Animal Health Agency
UK CITES Management Authority

How about before 1947?

All tortoiseshell items made prior to 1947 can be sold legally with the CITES paperwork.

What are ‘Reworked’ picks?

The term “re-worked” is defined as conversion from a different object. This includes conversion from a box or hairbrush to a guitar pick.

Reworked Tortoiseshell picks
Reworked Tortoiseshell picks

Why is reworked tortoiseshell picks illegal to sell?

It is not as it is impossible to positively prove it’s origins.

Here’s an example: A 1999 survey by Traffic, a worldwide trade monitor network showed newly created tortoiseshell guitar picks being sold at US$5.40 in Mexico City and the Yucatán Peninsula.

There is no method to differentiate between one of these Mexican made picks and the pick you have made from your grandmother’s 1920’s tortoiseshell box.

Are there legal tortoiseshell picks?

D’Andrea manufactured tortoiseshell picks from 1930 to the late 70’s. At present however, there is no way to prove a date of manufacture for a guitar pick as even receipts cannot identify individual picks.

Do they sound different?

My opinion is that compared to nylon and plastic picks, the tortoiseshell picks do provide more clarity and greater depth to the trebles. However this is a minor difference and there are many good picks on the market.

Golden Gate, Wegen, and Tortex are just a few used by pickers, each with their own wonderful characteristics.


CITES website
US fish and wildlife

Specific references:
Department of the interior news release 21st September 1981, Alan Levitt
Connett, S. Pers. comm. to E. Fleming, TRAFFIC North America, Washington, D.C., November 1999.
Tortoiseshell and the law-

2008 Terence Tan.
©2008 respective owners.
Original article from

Any infringement of copyright is entirely unintentional. Any copyright issues should be address to: We will attempt to resolve these issues quickly.

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  1. Jacqueline says:

    Whoa! This pick controversy post blew me away. The world is flooded with amazing information. Thanks for sharing.

    BTW, beautiful photo!

  2. Wayne Seymour says:

    This is a concise, clear, unbiased article on the subject. I’ve read others that are overly complex or biased in one way or another. Incidentally, I do have one of the old D’Andrea picks from the late 30’s, but it is only about as think as 2 sheets of paper, making it useless as a guitar pick! thanks for the article.

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