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Seashell Valentines

Source: Martha Stewart Living, February 2003


The delicate colors and exquisite shapes of shells have inspired countless craftspeople to incorporate them into objects ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary, from tissue-box covers to elaborate mosaics. The more intricate creations include sailors' valentines -- octagonal wooden boxes adorned with seashells and messages of love first made and given as gifts in the early 19th century. These beautifully designed mosaics were once thought to be the handiwork of lonely mariners passing the time during long voyages. Restoration work on one box revealed the truth, in the form of a crumpled page of a newspaper, that Barbadians made and sold the valentines to American and British seamen. Although this provenance is somewhat less romantic, the intricacy of the shellwork shows that each was, nevertheless, a labor of love.

Today, people longing for one of these seaworthy keepsakes may use the originals as inspiration for their own shell-box creations, as does artisan Sandy Moran, who has been crafting modern sailors valentines for 10 years at her studio near the Atlantic Ocean on Cape Cod and on the Gulf of Mexico in Sanibel, Florida.Turn the page for how-tos.


  • Bags of shells

  • Bonding cement or a specially formulated white glue

  • Sandpaper

  • Balsa-wood box

  • White or pink acryllic paint and paintbrushes

  • Plexiglass

  • Pencil

  • Compass

  • Tweezers


  1. Bags of shells -- available in crafts stores and on specialty websites -- often contain more than one type and size. Begin by sorting them by size, shape, and color so you don't get halfway through gluing only to discover you're short of a particular variety.

  2. Sand a balsa-wood box. Apply a light coat of white or pink acrylic paint to the box to accentuate the shells' natural colors.

  3. Create blooms by gluing shells together on a sheet of Plexiglas and popping them off once dry. Draw circles in pencil with a compass. Affix shells, using bonding cement or a specially formulated white glue, and place them precisely with tweezers. Our white oval box has large and medium rice shells arranged around a cultured pearl.

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