Tortoiseshell Manicures Are Back And Proving Neutrals Can Be Fun

Summer has been a great season to try out funky and fun nail trends like water marbled nails and magical metallic manicures. But if the ubiquitous sight of brightly colored nails has given you visual overstimulation, using neutrals for your next manicure might feel like a refreshing twist. Black and brown may sound like the least exciting colors to use on your nails, but add amber to that combo and you've got yourself a palette for the classic tortoiseshell manicure.


A popular pattern for glasses, bags, hair accessories, and shoes, manicurists have long adapted this animal print for nails because of its amazing versatility. Katie Masters, for example, finds it more forgiving of imperfect applications, telling Allure, "Since it's an abstract type of art, the less perfect and more natural-looking, the better." That makes personalizing your tortoiseshell manicure easier and more fun.

But first, you need to get its basics right. Manicurist Jin Soon Choi explained to Byrdie, "Tortoiseshell nails combine two nail trends in one: A jelly nail color as a base and tortoiseshell patterns on top, [achieved by] applying the light color first and then lightly dotting the dark colors on top of it." Part of this look's appeal is its high-wattage shine, so swipe a layer of glossy and quick-drying top coat in between each color's application. This also highlights the layering of the black and brown dots or patches and creates a fun 3D-ish effect. (Didn't we tell you neutral nails can look super cool too?)


Wear it with any nail shape

Given how good the tortoiseshell pattern looks, whether on a dress or on something as small as a hair barrette, rest assured that you can sport this manicure whether you have trendy almondetto nails or are a lifelong fan of the squoval shape, a more practical, short nail. Draw the dots to fit the size and shape of your nails, checking their proportions as you go. Consult a photo of a tortoiseshell pattern as a guide.


To maintain balance in your tortoiseshell manicure, So Nailicious advises drawing dark dots sparingly. "Too many can look crowded and messy ... so try to keep it to four to six spots per nail."

Go halfsies with a milk bath manicure

Hit two trendy looks in one by painting half of a nail in a milky, "barely there" hue and the other half in a tortoiseshell pattern. Though both are based on neutrals, they look refreshingly chic together, with the creaminess of milk bath nails setting off the warmth of the tortoiseshell colors nicely.


To create a clear distinction between the two styles and avoid a messy application, Byrdie suggests using nail tape to help you color within the right nail half. For something more complex, do tortoiseshell stripes on a milk bath base. Use a fine-tipped brush to draw the black and brown dots on a narrow strip.

Do reverse half moons

Switch up the tortoiseshell-and-milk-bath combo by doing a reverse French manicure with the animal print painted at the ends of the nails. Even more visually interesting, use negative space to create half moons that taper to tortoiseshell tips. This is perfect on longer nail shapes like stiletto nails and square-tipped coffin nails because they offer sufficient space to create distinctive crescents at the base.


For clean-looking DIY half moons, The Dapper Dahlia suggests placing binder hole reinforcement stickers at the bottom of the nails after applying your milk-bath base coat. Press on all sides to secure them in place so you can paint your tortoiseshell pattern right to their edges.

Use it to accentuate specific nails

Make your dark manicure more dramatic by painting an accent nail or two in a tortoiseshell pattern. Aside from black, fall colors like deep emerald and burgundy look good when paired with this animal print, since they complement its warm amber base. Placing this pattern near dark colors also emphasizes its brown and black spots.


This approach is a trendy way to spruce up your autumnal nails. As manicurist Jin Soon Choi told Byrdie, "[It] is easy to do, looks cool, and is a great way to add a unique touch to any manicure." Tip: Have more full-color nails on your hands so your tortoiseshell ones truly stand out.

Set it off with gold

Add wattage to your tortoiseshell manicure's shine with gold leaf. Frame your nails by applying thin gold strips around their edges. Make it mimic how light creates a glossy effect by placing small pieces of foil on your tortoiseshell print. No need to have an exact pattern for this, but remember not to go overboard with the gold so as not to overpower your manicure's main feature.


Per Natural Beauty Uncovered, foil is best applied while your polish is still slightly sticky. Use a tweezer or toothpick to place gold foil on your nails, then tap gently with your fingertips to secure their positions. Seal everything in with a top coat.