A photo of a brass seashell finding.

A photo of a brass seashell finding.

Paola Singer, WSJ 06/17/05


When Nicole Giessman was decorating her new master bathroom, she ordered two oval mirrors lined with mud starfish and scallop, abalone and pearlized turbo shells. "Itís probably the first time Iíve used a seashell motif," she said. "A lot of the things Iíve seen out there are a little overdone, but I liked the simplicity of this one."

Seashells, corals and starfish used to be the kind of things primarily sold in seaside tourist shops, but lately theyíve been showing up more in mainstream design, incorporated into furniture or as stand-alone art pieces costing as much as $1,000. Ms. Giessman bought her $99 mirror from Harvest of Barnstable, a Cape Cod, Mass., retailer and wholesaler that makes shell based decorative objects. After one of its designs appeared in a shopping magazine, the company received 40 orders in two weeks.

National retailers have been riding the seashell wave as well. For its summer catalog this year, Pottery Barn added a new line of resin starfish and corals that comes in a set of three for $59. A spokeswoman for the retailer said its product-development team got the idea to include marine materials after seeing their popularity in shops in Europe.
"The coastal beach theme has really taken off," said David Myers, owner of Sheashellworld.com, an online retailer. His yearly sales of decorative seashells have increased at a steady 20% for the past few years, he said. One thing the company has strived to stay away from, said Mr. Myers, is the "Ď60s and Ď70s campy feel of little seashells." Instead, the store specializes in a selection of large shells such as nautiluses and conches meant to be used as stand-alone display pieces.

From Renaissance to Rococo

In spite of their recent-and somewhat tacky-past, seashells used to be a key accent to a stylish, elegant and wealthy household long ago. Their use dates to the Renaissance, when garden grottoes were fashionable, explained Daniella Ohad-Smith, who teaches design history at Parsons School of Design in New York. These cave-like structures were decorated with moss-covered rocks, shells and other marine life. "It was the most luxurious garden feature of the wealthiest and most cultured Renaissance people," Ms. Ohad-Smith said. Shell motifs influenced the 18th-century French decorative style known as rococo, derived from the words rocaille and coquille (rock and shell), and later Art Nouveau, which brought together nature and art, incorporating shells into bronze or glass objects.

Updating this old glamour, Christopher Gowís line of home accessories adds silver touches to seashells, oysters and corals. His designs sell at retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, as well as his own New York boutique, Ruzzetti & Gow. A mother-of-pearl nautilus shell partially dipped in silver and mounted on coral costs $900. Since 2000, sales have more than doubled. "People with taste have realized that something can be either very tacky or very chic," Mr. Gow said. "Itís the way you put them together."

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