(Singular nouns: Fr-poisson écaille; Ger-Fischschuppe; Nor-fiskeskjell; Rus-рыбья  чешуя)

A. Gyotaku.  American shad (Alosa sapidissima (Wilson, 1811)), caught in the Thames River, Connecticut, several miles upstream from Long Island Sound, was 54 cm long.  Gyotaku was made by Jack A. Brown of Noank, Connecticut.  (© photo by Jack Brown, from

DESCRIPTION:  Scales of bony fish (phylum, Chordata;  subphylum, Vertebrata;  class, Osteichthyes; subclass, Actinopterygii) -- e.g., yellow perch (Perca flavescens (Mitchill 1814)) -- have two chief parts (layers), the surficial "bony" layer that is chiefly hydroxyapatite and calcium carbonate and the underlying fibroidal layer that is chiefly organic proteins such as collagen (Helfman, Collette & Facey, 1997).  A few additional characteristics are described briefly under the Remarks subheading.  Typical properties follow:
    Colors - colorless or off-white:  The colors one sees on most live fish, the scales of which are used in decorative items, are chiefly, if not wholly, either the color of the underlying skin or are structural.
    H. 2½ - 4  (though hydroxyapatite has a hardness of 5)    
    S.G.  3.16 (for hydroxyapatite); 2.71- 2.93 (for calcium carbonate -- i.e., calcite and aragonite, respectively)
    Light transmission - transparent to semitranslucent
    Luster - pearly to waxy
    Breakage - irregular,  tend to "tear";  when fresh, however, fairly flexible -- i.e., rather easily bent only to return to their original shape. 
    Miscellaneous - Effervesce with dilute HCl;  are typically "fingernail thin" or thinner;  commonly exhibit an opalescence or even an iridescence.

OTHER NAMES:  None so far as I know.

USES: Fish scales have two chief roles:  1.Direct use, though typically dyed or painted, in jewelry, decorative objects and appliqué.   2.Indirect use as the chief constituent of essence d'orient used widely in the production of pearl simulants.  As noted in the last paragraph in the REMARKS,  this use is dependent upon the iridescence and color of some fish scales.
       Jewelry:  Tarpon (Megalops  Lacepède, 1803  sp.) scales are recorded as "
large enough to be used for junk jewelry" (Helfman, Collette & Facey, 1997, p.34).  The description of "Mixing beads & Fishscale Art"  -- a continuing education course offered by Red Deer College of Alberta, Canada is described as follows:  "Fish scale art is unique to this region and has been developed to create jewellery [sic] and as art suitable for framing. The intricate arranging of these natural elements creates various artistic designs on any surface. Students will learn the History, the Art, the Techniques of applying beads and dyed white fish scales to a leather or velvet background ready for framing. They will learn to process the white fish scales, such as scale removal, cleaning, dying, trimming and preparing background surfaces like leather and velvet. The basic six beadwork stitches will be taught to incorporate the art pieces. Students are expected to complete a pair of earrings, a lapel pin and two 5x7 works of art in the one week session." (Red Deer, 2006)  Additional information has not been forthcoming from either the instructor or the college.  
       Decorative objects: Two examples are:  "60 flowers and five butterflies crafted into this wreath were made by painting fish scales and gluing them to wires and springs. Each petal was carefully cut, serrated, bent and twisted to form flowers."  [and]  "In the late 1800s ... fisherfolk of Jones Island in Milwaukee ...crafted scales into intricate pansies, daisies, violets, carnations and even Japanese lanterns. Minute stamens and pistils made the crafts appear very authentic."  (Johnson, 1997).  Also, apparently decorative -- at least attractive to fish -- some fishermen glue or otherwise attach fish scales onto their lures.   See also the quotation in the above paragraph about the Red Deer College course.
       Appliqué: This method of fashioning both decorative and functional items by fastening, commonly by sewing, one material on top of another material has used fish scales as an applied material -- sometimes by itself, other times along with such things as beads and/or pieces of fabric different from that of the underlying material.  The kroj, part of which is shown as Figure B, is a fine historical example:  “The Fish Scale Kroj is a complete kroj ... said to have been made in 1813 and [to have] belonged to the wife of a head fishmaster and supervisor of a large lake near Trebon, Bohemia (now Czech Republic). It is adorned with glass beads, silver sequins, semi-precious stones, lace, and carp  (?Cyprinus carpio Linnaeus, 1758) scales  [my emphasis]. The carp scales were cut into various designs before being sewn, with beads, into flower patterns on the blue velvet vest and brown velvet apron. The scales represent the fish and their role in the livelihood of the fishmaster’s wife while the glass beads represent the fish eggs.” (The National Czech..., 2002).

  B. Fish scales.  Kroj (folk wear) from the Blata region of Bohemia, a region known for its carp farming, in the Czech Republic. Scales of the fish are dried and cut with special scissors into decorative motifs and then fastened onto the fabric with thread that goes through them and small beads on top of them (Edith Blanchard, personal communication, May, 2006).  (© photo from The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA.  Contact the Curator at (319) 362-8500 for further information.)

        Gyotaku: Another so-to-speak indirect art/decorative use in which fish scales play a role is in the preparation of Gyotakus (Japanese, fish prints) -- See Figures A & C.  This process is described as follows: "An actual fish is inked and placed on paper or cloth, where it leaves an image of itself, complete with eyes, scales, fins, and gills. It is a relatively new technique, originating about 100 years ago as a way for Japanese fishermen to record the exact size and kind of fish they had caught. Sometimes gyotaku are displayed on the walls of homes, or sometimes they are kept in a journal to document a successful fishing spot. ... ¶ [So,] the gyotaku provides an accurate record of the catch. In addition, the print is a work of art, to be hung on the wall and admired, not only for the size of the fish, but for the aesthetic appeal of the print." (Arkenberg, 1999).

C. Gyotaku. These two porgies (larger one, length ~35 cm) -- family, Spaaridae -- were caught in Long Island Sound.  Gyotaku was made by Jack A. Brown of Noank, Connecticut.  (© photo by Jack Brown, from


OCCURRENCES & NOTEWORTHY LOCALITIES:  Scales are usually discarded wherever fish are caught and dressed.  In some areas, where fishing is an industry, "Garbage cans full of scales are sold to manufacturers..."(ARCH, nd).  Apparently the area around Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada has been a  noteworthy source.  

REMARKS:  The word fish apparently comes from the Old English fisc. The word scale, as used for fish scale, is generally indicated to come from Old French éscale, which seems to have the same roots as those given for shell -- see under Remarks subheading in SHELL entry. 

The first step in preparation of fish scales for the noted uses is to get rid of the slimy residue that occurs on most of them.  It is "washed off," usually with a salt solution, acetone or alcohol, or a weak vinegar solution;  if a vinegar solution is used, it must be weak or it may dissolve the carbonate portion of the scales.  After the solvent is rinsed off and the scales are dried, they are ready for further preparations required for their chosen use;  in most cases, they are dyed, stained or painted and for some uses they are also cut or otherwise shapened.

Scales on bony fish, which are arranged like shingles on a roof, are usually classified on the basis of their shape as either cycloid or ctenoid.  Cycloid scales exhibit a smoothly rounded posterior edge, whereas ctenoid scales have comb-like posterior edges.  Cycloid scales are typical of fish like carps.  Ctenoid scales are typical of the so-called higher bony fishes such as perch.  In any case, scale size varies greatly -- e.g., "Scales are small in mackerel (Scomber), 'normal' in perch (Perca), large ... in tarpon (Megalops), and huge (the size of the palm of a human hand) in the Indian Mahseer (Tor tor, a cyprinid gamefish reaching 43 kg in weight)." (Helfman, Collette & Facey, 1997, p.34).

The annuli exhibited by scales have been the subject of several investigations: They provide valuable information so far as deciphering the life histories of the fish and their environments -- 
e.g., things such as the toxicity of the water and climatic conditions.  In addition, they provide a way of determining the probable age of the fish so long as the just mentioned variables are considered.  This is so because scales' circuli are growth rings that are analogous to those of tree trunks;  as in trees, during the cooler months of each year, the circuli grow more slowly, and this is manifest by different colored (typically darker) bands, the annuli.  

An aside, based on my long-term admiration of the works of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher:  "A central concept which Escher captured is that of self-reference, which many believe lies near the heart of the enigma of consciousness – and the brain's ability to process information in a way that no computer has yet mimicked successfully.  ...  In Fish and Scales [a woodcut, dated 1959], on the other hand, the self-reference is more functional; one might rather call it self-resemblance. In this way the woodcut describes not only fish but all organisms, for although we are not built, at least physically, from small copies of ourselves, in an information-theoretic sense we are indeed built in just such a way, for every cell of our bodies carries the complete information describing the entire creature, in the form of DNA." (Platonic Realms..., 1997-2004).  A different type of art depicting fish and fish scales is exemplified on book plates of the well-known Henry A. Sherwin, founder of Sherwing and Williams Paint company.  

"Essence d'orient." is made from fish scales – e.g., those of herring.   Once prepared, it is used to coat beads made of such things as glass, ceramics and shell.  This coating rather closely simulates the iridescence and color of quality pearls.  The constituent that gives the "essence..." its iridescence is guanine.  From an historical standpoint, it is generally agreed that in 1600s,
"a Frenchman named Jacquin, coroner of Passy, observed the iridescent appearance of the water into which some bleak (Alburnus lucidus  Heckel, 1843) had been scaled.  This [so-called] experiment led him to produce a substance which became universally known as essence of Orient which was none other than a suspension of guanine (minuscule luminous crystals removed from the lining of the membrane of fish scales with an aqueous detergent) in an organic liquid, usually cellulose nitrate, although other substances can also be used.  Jacquin used this to coat the inside of glass-blown spheres, which he then filled with wax. The results were highly successful for the times, and commercialization began of these spherules, named 'Parisian pearls or French pearls'." (Rollandi, 2004).  For a description, albeit dated, of the processes used to produce the essence, see Crowningshield (1950). Apparently the luster of some lipsticks and shimmery makeup products depend upon the inclusion of this so-called essence;  "for this purpose, the scales of fish ... are dipped in ammonia and mixed in the mixture." (The Muslim Woman, nd).

SIMULANTS: I have found none recorded although I suspect some people would consider the first mentioned replicas (below) to be such.

REPLICAS:  So far as I have been able to determine, fish scales, as such, have only recently been replicated.  An advertizement recently sent to me includes a photograph, described as  "gold, silver, and copper ... carefully layered upon cast sculptures of bronze made from molds of actual Marlin fish scale forms" that are marketed as collar necklaces and both button and dangle earrings.

So far as fish replicas:  Christmas tree ornaments that resemble fish, many of which are recognizable to species, have been made from both glass and plastic.  Jewelry that feature fish seldon includes any indication of scales; most have gemstones or enameled surfaces.  Silver flatware in 65-piece sets with handles that replicate fish with scales is  available from some of the most highly regarded marketers of silverware etc. Jugs, including those that  gurgle ("glug, glug") when liquid is poured from them, have been crafted with fish shapes, including scales, in both ceramics and glass. Koi "sc
ulptures" are marketed widely to be exhited as tokens of love, friendship and good luck (This use apparently derives from the fact that koi, the orginal Japanese word for carp (Cyprinus carpio), has a homonym that means love and affection.);  most koi, though somewhate stylized, are life-size and have their characteristic large scales well represented;  resin finshed to resemble metal, commonly brass with a verdigris finish, is the frequently used medium; by the way, to me, koi produced and  marketed for use as downspouts seem, becase of their attributed significance, to be tasteless, even profane.  Paper weights and tops of wine stoppers that consist of replicas of fish embedded in clear glass or plastic generally have brilliantly colored fish with no apparent scales.  Mermaids, apparently to emphasize their half-fish identities, have been made parts of jewelry (e.g., dangling earrings) and are staples of so-called wall art creations;  many are mosaics with enameled "scales."  A concrete bluefish, including well replicated scales, adorns an erosion barriers at Virginia Beach, Virginia  A rather attractive wind bell, rather recently (2007) marketed consists of a sand-cast bronze fish body, with a few highly stylized scales, as the bell, which rings when its copper tale catches the wind. 

Also, noteworthy is the fact that Nasco makes rubber replicas of fish that are included in kits for use, among other things, in making so-to-speak faked gyotaku;  these substitutes allow one to use the procedure without having to contend with either the smell or the mess that go along with preparing true gyotaku (Nasco, 2005; Arkenbert, 1999).  In addition, diversely colored and stylized replicas of fish – many with their scales emphasized – are marketed as Christmas tree ornaments, which are apparently glass or plastic;  and small bas relief fish, some identified as to species, are the foci of metal belt buckles.

The widespread application of  the term fishscale (or fish scale), either as an adjective or noun, to the patterns assumed by several things on the basis of their patterns seems to be of at least passing interest here.  Examples include Tiffany lamps and ceiling fixtures, and slate and other "shingles" on roofs and sides of buildings. Also, it should be kept in mind that  "Fish scale embroidery" is so-named because it consists of patterns that resemble the shapes and arrangements of fish scales -- i.e., the designation does not apply to the illustrated (Fig. B) appliqué that utilizes fish scales.

et cetera:  Sea horses (Genus Hippocampus) are the most frequently replicated fishes.  Their lack of scales leads to their inclusion here as only an "afterthought."  Their appearances -- "resembling an amalgamation of body parts taken from numerous animals:  a horse-like head, a monkey-like prehensile tail, chameleon-like eyes and insect-like body armor " (Lockyear, 2002) -- led to their prominent place in folklore, legends, mythology, supertitions, art and literature, and consequently to the fashioning and marketing of their replicas.   These replicas, which have been produced in virtually all of the media mentioned in Appendix A, are used in jewelry of nearly all genres and constitute whole, or parts of, several kinds of curios.  Roles of sea horse replicas include the following:  Candle sticks, Christmas tree ornaments, figurines (e.g., atop freestanding replicas of tree-like corals and in wall hangings), fly fishing bait, foci of 
centerpieces, handles on mugs (etc.), paper weights (embedded in), pitchers, stands for such things as flower stands and mailboxes, vases and  weather vane tops.

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R.V. Dietrich © 2008
Last update: 19 March 2008
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