Antique shellwork boxes displayed on a shelf
19th century English decorative boxes made in the shape of furniture are the most collectible of the Victorian shell boxes and are rare to find in good condition.

Treasures of the sea, shells add a touch of seaside panache to any room. Collecting shell accessories such as art or decorative pieces is an enjoyable hobby, and there is a range of shell collectibles to choose from, both antique and contemporary.

Shells, with their memories of joyful summers at the beach, have enchanted us since the beginning of time.

There is a range of shell collectibles to choose from, both antique and contemporary. These mementoes of the ocean have a quiet, understated beauty that connects us to the natural world.

 Mermaid bridal tiara covered in hundred of miniature mother of pearl shells and the tiniest seed pearls.
A one-of-a-kind mermaid bridal tiara is covered in hundred of miniature mother of pearl shells and the tiniest seed pearls.

History

Once prized as rare artifacts with magical qualities, exotic shells brought to European shores by the Dutch East India Company stimulated an avid passion for collecting them in the 17th century. Wealthy collectors gathered costly collections of shell specimens for their private museums. Cabinets of curiosity, rooms outfitted with display cases and shelves to display natural and botanical treasures, held a fortune’s worth of shells.

Shells were so prized in the early 18th century that they were sold at auction, rivaling paintings by Dutch masters in cost. Royal houses around the world had grottos created at their palaces and chateaus covered in shells.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that shellwork came into fashion for upper class ladies. Suddenly, covering smaller objects with shells became a popular craft; little packets with shells and designs for shell boxes, frames and floral designs were sold en masse.

Souvenirs covered with shells or made of shells became a cottage industry in coastal towns around the world during this time. Mostly designed for women, the small boxes, sewing drawers, little frames and other small shell mementoes could be bought inexpensively and tucked into a sailor’s “kit” to bring back home. The port of Barbados is thought to be the place where the sailor’s valentine, a two-sided wood case filled with shell work, originated.

his 19th-century shellwork souvenir box was created especially to hold lustrous strands of pearls.
This 19th-century shellwork souvenir box was created especially to hold lustrous strands of pearls.

What to Collect

Shell variety, shapes, natural colors and pearlescent sheen bring beauty to any interior. You can focus your shell collection on Victorian era boxes, frames and pincushions, or collect pieces from the few shell artists still actively creating today. Both kinds of objects will add the beauty of the sea to your home. But how to tell the difference?

1. LOOK AT THE SHELLS. True antique shellwork will have shells that are rare to find today. Pelican’s feet shells, for instance, used on many pieces from the 1800s, are now all but extinct. The shells that are on antique pieces won’t be perfect: a little dull, a little chipped perhaps. Newer shell pieces will have much brighter, cleaner shells, more evenly matched in color and size.

2. LOOK AT THE MATERIALS. Authentic antique shell art is most often made with paper-covered carton boxes. The shells are often either glued on with a waxy substance or set in a thin layer of gesso. The shell artists of today use a clear, strong glue.

3. LOOK AT THE CONDITION. Antique shell art was created with delicate shells, which may have a little damage after 100 years. Contemporary shell art pieces will have beautiful, clean and strong shells.

TO BEGIN A COLLECTION OF SHELLS: First, be sure to find out if it is legal to gather shells in your area. Be careful to collect only “dead” shells, or shells that have washed up on the beach. Please don’t harvest sea shells still being used by mollusks and other creatures: Doing so will damage the ocean’s ecosystem.

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