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Sailors’ Valentines: An Antique Shell Craft

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Experts agree that sailors’ valentines as an art form originated in the British West Indies.

If you enjoy walking on Cape Cod beaches and picking up colorful and unusually-shaped shells, you’ll appreciate the artistry of sailors’ valentines.

These intricate shell mosaics feature symmetrical designs made from small sea shells that have been glued onto a backing and enclosed in a wooden box with a hinged lid.  Most often the boxes were octagonal.

Sailors’ valentines originally were created by British West Indies craftsmen in the early nineteenth century and were sold to sailors while they were visiting the port. Barbados was a particularly great source of sailors’ valentines because it often was the last port of call for sailors before returning home.

Sailors’ valentines often included sentimental statements such as “To My Sweetheart” or “Home Again” in the center of the design. This made them fine gifts to bring back home to loved ones.

Experts agree it’s unlikely that sailors made these pieces of art themselves because the materials required to make them would not have been available to sailors on their ships.

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Antique sailors’ valentines sometimes included sentimental sayings in the center.

Antique sailors’ valentines have become increasing valuable over the past few decades. According to Diana Bittel, an antiques dealer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 20 years ago a small double (side-by-side) sailors’ valentine that sold for $350 to $600 now could fetch $3,500 to $8,500, and a large double valentine that sold for $1,000 now might sell for $8,500 to $18,000.

Gayle Condit, a Cape Cod-based artist, has created hundreds of sailors’ valentines since becoming hooked on the art form after spotting one in a gallery on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1980s. She uses long tweezers, glue, paint brushes, an X-Acto knife and dental tools to create her masterpieces, which have won numerous top awards at “shell shows” in Sanibel, Florida, and Philadelphia.  Some of Gayle’s sailors’ valentines have taken a week to make while others have required several months to complete. Depending on the size and complexity of the design, each of her sailors’ valentines uses from a few thousand shells to many thousands. While antique examples from Barbados typically incorporated about 35 different varieties of shells, today an artist might use more than 100 types of shells to create one sailors’ valentine.

Although Gayle likes to use jingle shells and mussels from Cape Cod’s shores, she also has used shells she’s collected in Alaska, Aruba, Barbados, Bequia, Mustique and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  She purchases some shells through web sites, sometimes at a cost of $100 for a 1/4 cup.

If you’re interested in learning how to make sailors’ valentines, Gayle suggests reading articles and books on the subject and attending shell shows. She also teaches classes and is in demand as a speaker at flower clubs. She can be contacted through her web site, sailorvalentines.com.

Recommended reading: Sailors’ Valentines by John Fondas and Sailors’ Valentines: Their Journey Through Time by Grace Madeira.

(Photographs: Diana Bittel)

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