HeartoftheSea Antique Shellwork


If the romance of the sea lures you, 19th century shell art antiques will stir up warm weather memories of sand, the soothing sounds of crashing waves, and sun-filled holidays. Today I’m sharing about COLLECTING VICTORIAN SHELL SOUVENIRS.

Remniscent of the majestic sailing ships and long sea voyages to the New World, these hand crafted shell works bring back the romantic notion of sailor’s daydreams of loved ones across the ocean.



I was honored when Victorian Homes Magazine published this in their summer 2017 issue. It’s always exciting to share my love for antiques with you, here, and via a magazine. It should be out now, so if you adore Victorian manors and homes, this issue is particularly lovely. Think Downton Abbey. Gorgeous!!

Originally a shell work post I did a while ago, I added some photos of the latest acquisitions of Victorian shell work from FrenchGardenHouse.

This is what it looks like in the magazine. I love the colors of the font, and the shells at the top!


FRENCHGARDENHOUSE Article Shell Art Victorian Homes Magazine



In the 17th century, the exotic shells brought back by the Dutch East India Company stimulated an infatuation for shells that took hold of European collectors. The very wealthy, along with royalty, collected the prized rare shells with great passion.

Dutch merchants opened a market specifically to sell these exotic rarities and newly discovered shell specimens.  The upper classes of Europe collected the shells in their “cabinets of curiosity” {a room outfitted with display shelves and cases} – their private museum – to showcase a costly collection.


Architects designed and created grand “grottoes” covered in shells in many of the noble estates on the continent. Meant to be an enhancement to Italian Renaissance gardens so in favor, the shell covered grottos copied ancient Roman ones.

The French Queen Margaret, first wife of Henry IV of France, commissioned a shell grotto at Issy-les-Moulineaux. The “Grotto of Tethys” at Louis XIV’s Versailles was built in 1665 as an under the sea retreat for the king with precious stones, shells and mirrors. A century later, Louis XVI had a shell cottage built at Rambouillet for Marie Antoinette. Shells were popular in a big, big way!




During the early 18th century, the collecting craze for shells in Holland rivaled the Dutch madness for collecting tulip bulbs. Records show that at one auction in Amsterdam, a shell sold for more than paintings by Vermeer.  The shells were so expensive they were regarded as investments. Famous painters of the era painted still lives of shells, presenting them as a precious and luxurious object.

Shellwork, grottos, and grand scale furniture either covered with shells or meant to imitate shells remained popular throughout royal houses during the next century, but it wasn’t until the 1800’s that shellwork truly came into vogue for the upper and middle classes.



As ships brought back entire cargoes of shells for the whims of the aristocracy, it’s not surprising that covering smaller objects with shells soon became fashionable for upper class ladies of leisure.

Victorian ladies could purchase shellwork supplies in Mrs. Roberson’s shop on London’s Grosvenor Square. Little packets were sold with shells already sorted and accompanied by printed patterns for forming shell flowers, boxes and frames. To attach shells to a decorative object, the shells were dipped into hot wax or glue, and arranged in fanciful designs. Shell art, or shell work, as it is also called, was a past time many Victorian society ladies enjoyed.


Even Queen Victoria was fond of shell art, she often had gifts or shell work portraits commissioned for her court favorites.

VIctorian ShellworkMop


At the same time, enterprising working-class men and women who populated the port towns of France, Holland, and England found a way to craft and sell their handmade little “shell souvenirs” to bring much needed income to their households.

While it is true that some sailors might have created shellwork items, it was more common for them to purchase shellwork souvenirs in a port where their vessel stopped. After spending months away from their family, girlfriends, wives and mothers , sailors were eager to purchase a small souvenir to let these loved ones know they had been the only one in their heart and on their mind.

Victorian ShellworkDresser Red


Most of the shellwork souvenirs were designed for women, small boxes, sewing drawers, little frames, small, sweet mementoes that a sailor could either ship or tuck into his “kit” to bring back home.

A shellwork industry sprang up world wide in many busy ports. 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.






Collecting this once obscure Victorian shell craft is steadily gaining popularity today. As with all antiques, educate yourself by looking at examples of true antique shellwork boxes in museums and shops if possible.

Shell covered boxes are still being made today, and are beautiful in their own right. But if you wish to collect true antiques, follow this advice.



1. Shells. A tell-tale way to detect if you are purchasing a true antique is to look at the shells. Are they a little worn, do they have some patina? Is the box covered in shells that are not as common as those you can find anywhere today? Pelican’s feet shells, for instance, were favorites in the 1800’s and plentiful, these days they are  extremely rare to find.

2. Materials.  Among the most popular shell souvenirs made and bought in the 1800’s were Sailor’s Valentines, two octagonal wood frames joined by a hinge, filled with complimentary or matching shell art works under glass. Other favorites, shell roundels, sometimes called bull’s eyes, or portholes, have colored prints of clipper ships and fishing boats under domed glass coverings.  Authentic antique shell art is most often made with wood, or paper covered carton boxes.

3. Whimsy.  Victorians had a great sense of whimsy, true antique shell boxes were often made in the shape of miniature pieces of furniture. Boxes may have a mirror inside the lid if it was intended as a jewelry casket, or a divided interior if meant as a sewing box. Especially sweet are the boxes that feature a seaside chromolithograph scrap on the top, or a silk covered heart pin cushion. Collectors prize the boxes made like miniature furniture most, as these are rare and were made in much less quantities.

4. Condition.  The shell encrusted frames, boxes and miniature pieces of furniture were created with delicate shells. It is acceptable, almost desirable, to see some damage on a few shells.

The shell art boxes created with paper or board will have bent corners, these treasures are, after all, more than a 100 years old. Many boxes have had one or two small shell repairs, these delicate treasures are not diminished in beauty or value because of it.

5. Prices.  Never was the adage “you get what you pay for” more true than with Victorian shell work.  The true, antique pieces are highly and avidly collected,  expect to pay anywhere from 150.00 for a very small and not as rare piece to 3000.00 and up for something rare and amazing.  The average price point for exceptional small boxes is between 300.00 – 500.00, slightly more for unusual or miniature furniture boxes.



A collection of antique shell work is an alluring way to bring a touch of summer to your home, and a fascinating reminder of seafaring sailors who set off on great adventures around the world.


I love these antique treasures of the sea!



I hope you enjoyed getting to know a little more about the shell art of long ago.




WHAT KIND OF SOUVENIRS DO YOU BRING HOME FROM A TRIP? {I bring antiques…but you probably guessed that already, right?}


  1. How fascinating! And beautiful! I’m going to Scott’s Antiques Markets (Atlanta) next weekend and will certainly look for some of these beautiful boxes.
    When I travel, if I’m near the ocean I always look for sea glass to bring home … and shells, rocks and small pieces of driftwood. I was on Cape Breton Island in October, looking for sea glass, and a most wonderful treasure washed up – a child’s fork. I was thrilled!! No telling how many years it had been tumbling along the bottom of the sea before it was swept in with the tide … right in front of me! I love to visit antique shops and buy an old piece of china or a piece of local pottery. Whatever I bring home as a souvenir, I make sure it’s something made locally. I’m going to Spain in late May and have been thinking about what I want to bring back … it won’t be a bullfighting poster, castanets or a fan. Just too typical and touristy.

    1. Vicky, I love sea glass! I have a collection of little tumbled pieces in white and aqua that I mix in with my shells.
      I’ll be interested to know what you choose to bring back from Spain! {They have amazing leather goods!}

  2. Ginger Valdes

    Who wouldn’t want to add a romantic sailers valentine box to sweet summer vignette? Thanks for the beautiful post, Lidy!

  3. Delloraine

    We live 2hrs from the Gulf and I now have more beautiful ideas for all the shells my girls have collected over the years. We usually bring home found items from nature .

  4. diane trahan

    Living on Galveston Island, much of our home decor includes seashells,
    so I can really appreciate these beautiful boxes. I can imagine how fun they were to make

  5. I think shells have translated well into the contemporary designs we see today.
    I love it but a little goes a long way. It really is a make or break decor item!

    This post was beautiful and educational. Thanks.


  6. As you know, the shell art is near and dear to my heart….brings back so many memories of spending time with my aunt in her home in the Florida Keys. She was a beautiful shell artist and won many awards for her designs. These pieces are exquisite. My little Sweetie created ornaments this past year from shells….they were amazing. Beautiful post and loved learning about the history of these beauties! Have a great weekend…oh those bird bowls are gorgeous! So admired them in past posts.

  7. Jane Kirkpatrick

    I just love the shell art boxes, they are lovely! Several years ago, I made a shell framed mirror that we still love hanging on our screened in porch. It’s just a reminder of our vacations collecting shells along the ocean and bays.

  8. Beautiful unique boxes, Lidy. I’m especially taken with the first one. Congratulations on the feature in Victorian Home Magazine.

  9. Fascinating history of these beautiful shell covered boxes. Having grown up in California, I have many wonderful memories of time at the beach and boating on the ocean. Each summer, here in Las Vegas I have displays of shells and seaside pictures as reminders. Thanks Lidy!

  10. Once again, Lidy, thanks to you for making me take a stroll into my dining room and living room to appreciate some of the meaningful items I have. We did a bit of traveling some years ago, and just holding these treasures jogged my memory. A small print of the old Grass Market in Edinbourgh brought a smile and thoughts of the two pieces of lovely, antique(?) tea table linen from a little shop in the Grass Market area… for my much loved sister and one for me.( I have the one edged with a beautiful Battenburg Lace.) I let her choose the one she wanted. I loved them both! That reminded me of the large brass kettle,purchased in the smallest shop ever, that I carried on the plane with me, wrapped poorly. I was so careful with it…alas,it must have been dropped going through customs, resulting in a noticeable dent on the bottom edge. I still adore it! From London flea markets,small sterling(if reasonable) or silver plated teaspoons (demitasse(?),small ladles, a small mustard spoon. Small spoons, tied together with a narrow baby blue ribbon pleases me to no end….go figure! From Williamsburg, VA,a small piece of pewter always makes me happy. And, of course,from the MD or Jersey shore,shells carefully chosen on the beach AND chocolate covered salt water taffy….never to be a keepsake!!

    1. Joyce, I love that you have so many souvenirs that remind you of beautiful times in far away places!

  11. Cynthia White

    Thank you for the lesson on shell art, Lidy. Your examples here are beautiful; love the little vanity. I’ve been collecting and buying shells for several years with the idea of creating some shell art of my own. . .

  12. What a beautiful collection you have for sale. I enjoyed your history of shellwork and the exquisite examples you showed us. Thank you!

  13. I loved your blog about shells. I especially like furniture pieces covered in shells, but small boxes like this are so beautiful!

  14. Julie Watson

    I am drawn to the one with the painting of the couple by the sea. The colors are so appealing. This post is fascinating, Lidy. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  15. These are so exquisite!!! I love the creativity and beauty of the shell work! It’s wonderful to think of the stories they could tell, like a picture novel! The joy in making shell art and someone special receiving them! All the unique loving details, are heartwarming!

  16. Denise

    I don’t know if you know it but I’m a professional shell picker,I can spend hours looking for shells. Please enter me into the drawing for the sweetest pink bowls.
    Thanks, Denise

  17. I have always loved shells and have picked up many of them with my kids on those rare trips we were able to go to the beach. Our closest beach is the Gulf of Mexico, about 8-9 hours away. My souvenirs are something native to the area we visit and a cookbook with recipes for that area of the country. Love to try different things! I love your beautiful posts and hope you keep them coming!

  18. Gloria

    The shell boxes remind me of vacations with my parents (long long ago) when you could walk on the beach and find beautiful shells that my brother and I could glue on pieces of tile that we would give to my mom. the antique boxes have shells that you can’t find these days. Nature is truly wonderful.

    1. I love that memory, Gloria! You are right, when we were young, you could still find pastel colored shells in pinks, and purples, for instance, on the beaches here. I bet your Mom cherished those tiles with all her heart.

  19. Wonderful post I did not know anything about Victorian Shell Boxes. I can really appreciate them and if I come upon one, I will surely snap it up.

  20. This is so interesting and how beautiful. I know a lot of work goes into creating each piece. Truly works of art. Congratulations on the magazine article.

  21. Wow, once piece is more beautiful than the next! I love shells and the history is fascinating!

  22. Laurie @ Vin'yet Etc.

    I had no idea this was even a thing, how interesting! I think I had one as a child… I don’t know what ever happened to it, sadly. Thank you for educating me on this pretty trend.

  23. Patricia Niederhuth

    Beautiful,As a retired Navy wife, spent many hours collecting SHELLS from all over. Found a lot of comfort from my Shells and they always moved with me. Shell work is art you can hold in your hand. Thanks, All the pieces you have are Treasures.

  24. Kathie LePage

    We’re blessed by living so close to the beach. I have fond memories of my father handing me a shoe box of shells (when I was about 4yrs old) that he had collected before I was born. I spent hours writing down their names after I had looked them up in the Britannica Encyclopedia’s that we owned 🙂 I was such a little lover of books too. That was when I was 8 years old. Before we moved from San Diego to live in the country, my mother threw my collection away.

    I was heart broken as my father had died a year earlier. So throughout my life until this very day, and much to my husbands & family’s chagrin – whenever I’m out in nature I still collect shells, rocks, and pinecones. Is it possible that collecting is genetic? My granddaughter is 6, and she loves yard sales, brings home rocks, shells, pieces of bark lol, and other bits of nature.

  25. Kathie, that is such a sweet {although somewhat sad!} story! I love that your granddaughter is just like you, collecting and yard sale thrills, just like you!

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