In the heart of the bluegrass community, where tradition meets innovation, a unique question arises: Is it possible, or even advisable, to transform antique hawksbill tortoise shell items into flatpicks for our beloved instruments? This topic not only tugs at the strings of nostalgia but also plucks at the chords of legal and ethical considerations. Let’s explore this intricate issue.

Legal Landscape: The Endangered Species Act (ESA)

At the forefront of this discussion is the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under 16 U.S.C. § 1538, it’s unlawful to sell or trade any part of an endangered species, which includes many tortoises and turtles. Hawksbill turtles, coveted for their striking shells, are no exception. This law means that, generally, turning tortoise shell into guitar picks could be legally problematic. (1)

The Antique Exemption

However, there’s a twist: the ESA provides an exemption for antiques. If an item is over 100 years old and meets certain criteria, it could be exempt from some prohibitions. If Grandma’s hairpins are verified antiques, they might legally sidestep these restrictions. But remember, proving their antique status requires thorough documentation.

Ethical Dimensions

Beyond the legalities, ethical considerations are paramount. Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered, primarily due to demand for their shells. Using their shell, even from antique sources, can be seen as perpetuating the notion that animal parts are mere commodities, potentially fueling current illegal trades.

The Artist’s Perspective

For bluegrass musicians, the allure of playing with a piece of history is undeniable. However, using materials from endangered species is a choice laden with moral implications. We must weigh the unique tone and connection these picks might offer against the ethical and environmental costs.

Modern Alternatives: A Sustainable Path

The good news is that the realm of musical innovation offers various sustainable alternatives. From tortex to advanced bio-plastics, these materials mimic the qualities of tortoise shell without harming any wildlife. They also provide a broad spectrum of tonal qualities, opening new avenues for musical exploration.

Balancing Heritage with Responsibility

Deciding whether to transform antique tortoise shell hairpins into flatpicks isn’t just a question of legality; it’s a testament to our values as musicians and environmental stewards. While the antique exception may provide a legal route, the ethical implications are significant. As a community deeply rooted in respect for history and nature, our choices should reflect both our love for music and our commitment to conservation. Let’s embrace alternatives that allow us to make beautiful music and protect our planet’s precious wildlife.


(1) 16 U.S.C. United States Code, 2018 Edition Title 16 – CONSERVATION CHAPTER 35 – ENDANGERED SPECIES Sec. 1538 – Prohibited acts (