“If I want a really beautiful sound, I’ll use a tortoiseshell pick,” says virtuoso guitarist John Jorgenson. “They give you a lot of volume and a really full tone that’s bright without ever getting harsh.” Problem is, technically there’s no such thing as a tortoiseshell pick—tortoises are land animals with hard shells that make lousy picks, while turtles have softer shells and live in the water. And because turtles are endangered, selling products made from their shells has been illegal since 1947 (though possessing them is not).
That combination of highly desirable characteristics and unavailability led several manufacturers to get serious about emulating the sound and feel of genuine turtle shell picks, including Golden Gate, Wegen, JB, Clayton, and Red Bear Trading Company—all of which take different approaches. For example, Red Bear’s Tortis utilizes a material made from polymerized animal protein, whereas JB uses celluloid, and Golden Gate’s Mock Turtle picks employ a “naturally occurring” material that is “not treated in any additional way.” The way in which the picks are beveled is also a key factor, with most manufacturers offering various bevels done entirely by hand.
“One of the properties that makes turtle shell very desirable for plectrums is the way it excites the string,” says Red Bear’s Dave Skowron. “It imparts two types of energy: An almost percussive ‘pluck’ and a frictional element much like you get with a violin bow, which in my opinion is where the magic lies.”