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Since the beginning of time, people have marveled at the beauty of shells. The popularity of collecting them has ancient origins, and it spans all cultures and classes of society. Yet different people have appreciated shells in different ways. A few shared responses include consuming their contents as a food source; trading them as currency; making jewelry and decorations from them; and using them as tools, vessels, and objects of divination. These uses were born of simple practicality and evolved into decorative sophistication, which included displaying shells in curio cabinets and using them to adorn rooms and grottoes.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, collection mania swept through Europe. At that time, collecting shells and shellwork was a hobby of the nobility and the mark of a certain status. Collectors used partitioned wooden boxes and cabinets with cotton wool-lined drawers to display and label their specimens. Dukes, earls, and barons commissioned artists to create shell rooms and grottoes in their castles and mansions.
Many aristocrats took this pastime to new heights. In the late 1500s, Hapsburg archduke Ferdinand II developed a passion for collecting shells. His castle of Ambras near Innsbruck, Austria, had four entire rooms that housed a remarkable assemblage of shells. Another pioneer was Isabella d'Este, who installed her collection of shells and shell cameos in the old Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy, in the 1520s.
The chief credit for making shellwork one of the most popular and fashionable pastimes of the 18th century belongs to Margaret Cavendish-Bentinck, who was the Duchess of Portland, and Mary Delany. The Duchess, particularly devoted to conchology, was a leading patroness of natural history in England. Mrs. Delany was a devotee of shellwork. At her home in Ireland, she created elaborate shell surfaces, garlands of shell flowers that resembled fine carvings, and delightful shell-encrusted candelabra. Mrs. Delany also designed the grotto for the park at the Duchess of Richmond's country house, Goodwood Park, in West Sussex (see page 132).
Shell collections stored in cabinets of curiosities existed in almost every European palace and in the homes of many wealthy merchants. The Dutch, in particular, were known for their massive shell collections, because the Dutch East India Company's trade routes took them to many ports. The Dutch were among the first to take home rare cargo filled with unusual shells from little-known continents, sparking a passion for exotic curiosities. In Paris in the 1640s, the obsession with collecting shells became a large and lucrative business. Exotic treasures from the New World fascinated the wealthy, and the passionate desire to amass large collections drew inflated prices at auctions. Ships returning from trading expeditions packed large quantities of shells, some as ballast but most to be sold for the growing decorative arts market.
The lucrative shell trade started in earnest in London in 1835. At that time, Marcus Samuel, Sr., and his wife, Abigail, opened a store near the docks of the Thames, where they sold antiques, curios, and shells. The business prospered and their son, Marcus, Jr., having grown up in the business, naturally continued it. In 1892, he launched the Shell Trading and Oil Company (the Shell Oil Company still carries the original trademark, a gold scallop shell).
The first shell collectors' association began in the Netherlands in 1720. Named "The Lovers of Neptune's Cabinet," the organization was formed to study and develop an appreciation of shells, an activity that still flourishes in many shell clubs around the world. In Japan, where shell collecting has a venerable tradition, the emperor is the foremost shell collector and owner of the nation's greatest shell collection. Hence, the rarest shell is known in Japan as the Emperor.
Today, collectors still gather shells, which represent travel to exotic shores. Scientists, architects, and artists remain inspired and charmed by treasures from the sea. And these humble, exotic creatures continue to mesmerize and entice beachcombers to pick up a shell, put it to an ear, and listen.
Where to Find Shells
Shells are found everywhere in the world in the depths of the oceans and among coral reefs, in deserts and forests, on top of mountains, and in every type of fresh water. In fact, mammoth mounds of shells have been found in Japan, Denmark, Florida, and California with recorded measurements of up to a mile in length, half a mile in width, and 25 feet in depth. Colorful and curvaceous, shells are pieces of nature dressed in inspired form. So how do you go about acquiring these treasured gems?
Gathering shells in their natural habitat is the easiest and least expensive way to obtain a collection. Shells lying on the beach, known as beached shells, are especially abundant after a storm. Searching for them is a fun and relaxing adventure. While beachcombing, be alert and completely absorbed in your mission. Take in the total experience the ebb and flow of the water, the wonderful free feeling of sand under your bare feet. One surprising truth, which applies to almost anything, is that if you are honestly looking, you will find plenty of shells. They will almost dance into your hands.
It also helps to know a shell's favorite hiding spots: under seaweed, clinging to rock ledges, in shallow pools of water, and on sandbars. Some are buried under the sand, so use a scoop to sift through it. Shells are constantly being washed ashore and moved around the beach, so your finds will vary from day to day. Also take note of the tides; low tide produces the best opportunity for finding shells. (Take advantage of the tide timetable available from the local chamber of commerce.) And, of course, there is the wonderful experience of diving for shells; some larger ones never make it to the beach.
You can collect other interesting objects along with shells, such as smooth pieces of beach glass, stones polished to perfection, and wonderful colored glass balls from fishing nets. Driftwood is easy to find and makes a wonderful addition to a sea motif.
The warm waters of tropical regions and ocean rivers, such as the Gulf Stream, yield the most brilliantly colored shells. South Africa's Jeffrey's Bay is the world's number-one spot for shelling (on a recent trip there, I stumbled upon a seaport town, called Mossel Bay, that is home to a wonderful shell museum). The Pacific's Sulu Islands make up the world's second-best shelling region. Australia's Great Barrier Reef produces the largest shell known, the giant white clam, and many mollusks with colorful shells grow on the coral reef. Mexico has a large shell industry, too. Probably the world's largest supplier of shells is the Philippines, and exporting shells is one of the country's largest industries. In the Philippines you can find very large shells called jingle shells, also known as window shells because they are transparent and were once used to make windows and folding screens.
The mecca for shell collectors in the United States is Sanibel Island, off the west coast of Florida, where an estimated 250 shell varieties are found. Ponce de Lèon named this part of Florida the "Coast of Seashells." Sanibel, as well as its neighboring island Captiva, is considered the world's third-best shelling spot. The beaches on Sanibel and Captiva are, thanks to the play between the Gulf of Mexico's waters and the curve of the shoreline, filled with shells that wash up from faraway winter storms.
Cold-water shores have much to offer as well. The beaches of New Jersey and Long Island have plentiful oysters and clams. Cape Cod offers shelling on both the Atlantic and the bay shores. The coast of Maine, abundant in easily observable sea life, has plenty of shells along with other beach collectibles. As if that were not enough, there are the beautiful shores and the islands of Virginia and the Carolinas. There are myriad opportunities to search out sea treasures on the West Coast as well.
Shells are found from Washington State to the Baja Peninsula. Many books provide details on where to find the best beaches, along with the types of shells to be found on each.
Be aware that, as a result of the overcollecting of live specimens, many species have become seriously depleted. Some areas now prohibit people from collecting live speci-mens. However, searching beaches for dead specimens does not disturb the shell animal's life cycle. You can still amass a great collection while leaving live specimens for further propagation, ensuring that your grandchildren and other future collectors will be able to enjoy them.
There are other ways to obtain shells, such as ordering them through catalogs or from dealers on the Internet (see Resources on page 150), and in some areas, buying them from retail shell shops. Ordering from dealers can be a great advantage when you are working on big projects, because you can obtain large quantities of shells that are clean and ready to use. Acquiring shells from dealers is very convenient for shell lovers who do not have time to beachcomb or may not have access to waterways or sandy shores.
A surprisingly great place to obtain shells is a local restaurant. Often, the shells from shellfish meals are simply thrown away. When you order a shellfish meal, politely ask the waiter or waitress to save the shells from your dish. Smaller restaurants that know you as a faithful customer will probably be happy to contribute to your artistic endeavor.
No matter how you come by your shells, these magical, pearly objects with their complex natural geometry are irresistible. As you create your own works of shell art, remember that you are continuing in the footsteps of collectors and artists from long ago. Happy shelling!