On a recent vacation in Careyes, Mexico, Sara Beltrán scoured the beach looking for beautiful seashells for her Dezso jewelry line. And finding an unusual one, she thinks, is like discovering a great diamond.
“Amazing shells are hard to find,” Ms. Beltrán, a New York-based designer, said. “You can’t buy them or create them; it’s a gift from Mother Nature.”
Ms. Beltrán is among a group of designers who are mixing humble mollusk shells with gemstones, along with gold and other precious metals, in upscale contemporary jewelry.
Another such designer is Glenn Spiro, who buys Victorian-era objects decorated with shells from antiques dealers, then removes those shells for use in new designs. For example, one of his earring designs featured large snail shells, each shell enhanced with a central 4.5-carat diamond surrounded by more than 150 tiny diamonds, while another design starred greenish scaphopod shells, also called tusk shells, each scaphopod encrusted with eight pear-shape diamonds totaling almost four carats and small white diamonds totaling almost a half-carat. Prices start at $20,000.
Even the French house Boucheron embellished a brown and white marbled seashell, conus marmoreus, with 286 diamonds totaling 6.54 carats for a brooch in its Carte Blanche high jewelry collection, a 26-piece set called Ailleurs, unveiled in Paris in July 2022.
“It is the goal of high jewelry to arouse emotion and poetry, and it is our duty to question what is considered precious,” the house’s creative director, Claire Choisne, wrote in an email. “If someone understands the message, and the creativity, she or he will fall in love with this kind of piece, just like clients of contemporary art would.”
She said that while most people associate “precious” with large, shiny diamonds and other gems, for her, it’s the opposite. Her high jewelry collections have featured bamboo, marble and sand: “I wanted to show that precious materials are also found in nature, as I think it is the best designer in the world.”
While many might consider such approaches modern or novel, this method of working with shells is not new. These designers are actually bringing shells back to their roots: For most of history, shells were highly valued, and even used as currency. Cowrie shells, for instance, were used as currency in West Africa as early as the 14th century, and later, they were used for trading among African, Asian and European nations. For centuries, Native Americans shaped clam and conch shells into beads, some of which were added to ceremonial garments and accessories, while others were used as a currency known as wampum.
In the early 1940s, shell jewelry evolved, when Fulco di Verdura, the Italian aristocrat turned New York jewelry designer, fashioned lion’s paw and scallop shells into glamorous statement pieces worn by customers like the Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers and the actress Paulette Goddard. The designer purchased some of those shells from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and had them set with gold, diamonds and sapphires.
The New York jeweler Seaman Schepps also created his signature turbo shell earrings in the 1940s. The style originated when a client asked him to turn a pair of turbo shells from the Indian Ocean into earrings. The earrings, adorned with diamonds and other gems, continue to be a best seller for the brand, which is now owned by Anthony Hopenhajm.
“There is a lot of great historical jewelry,” he said. “But there are very few designs like our turbo shell earrings that are still worn today by both women in their 20s and their grandmothers.”
A shell’s organic beauty seems to attract everyone from the beachcombers who pluck them from the shore to jewelers, who see in them myriad ways to bring texture, pattern and volume to their designs.
As sea creatures secrete layers of calcium carbonate to form hard shells to protect their soft bodies, the uniform patterns and varying hues that make shells so captivating are created in the process, said Jessica Goodheart, assistant curator of mollusca at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“The coiled patterns are shaped when the snail’s body rotates during torsion,” Dr. Goodheart said, “and the varying colors come from chemicals generated either internally or as the result of something absorbed in the diet.” When the shells are discarded, they eventually wash up on the shore.
Many people associate shells with casual jewelry styles, like the puka shell necklaces of the 1970s and the cowrie shells of the 1990s. But today, as designers look for more unusual and organic elements, shells have come to the forefront again.
The organic origins of shells are what attracted Claudia Ortega, an interior designer based in Mexico City, to Ms. Beltrán’s jewelry.
“Sara is one of the jewelers who is breaking new ground and showing us that jewelry doesn’t have to be so rigid and made in just gold and gemstones,” said Ms. Ortega, who has been collecting Ms. Beltrán’s work for more than a decade. “Her pieces are fun and contemplative, and they aren’t a show of money or value, but they say so much more about the person who wears them.”
For Ms. Beltrán, the value of her designs isn’t in the worth of their gold or gems. “The shells remind me of the sea, of the smells, the sounds and peacefulness,” she said.
She brings the shells she’s gathered — on the beach, or through visits to a shell dealer in Paris — to Jaipur, India, where she designs pieces, inspired by the symmetry of Art Deco style, and then has them made by craftspeople with whom she has worked for years.
“I lay out all the shells and pair them with the gemstones that will enhance their colors and patterns,” Ms. Beltrán said. For example, she topped each of her white conical shell earrings with a one-carat polki diamond set in 18-karat rose gold; paired a large orange clam shell with a three-carat Madeira citrine for a necklace; and adorned an orange spotted mitra stictica shell with a three-carat emerald-cut citrine that had been set in 18-karat rose gold. Prices for her shell designs range from $1,700 to $20,000, depending on the gems.
For the past 20 years, the Brazilian designer Silvia Furmanovich has also used natural elements in her colorful jewelry. Those elements include bamboo, wood and shells, and, she said, she continues to look for other unusual materials and artisan-made crafts to incorporate into her designs.
On a 2019 trip to Kyoto, Japan, for instance, she purchased some antique clam shells that had been painted in gold leaf with scenes from Japanese literature for use in a matching game called Kai-awase that was popular during the Edo period (1603-1868). She turned those shells into earrings set with gold and diamonds, some accented with emeralds, others with fire opals.
And during a trip, to Sedona, Ariz., she met some American Indian artists who specialized in inlaying gemstones in shells, and enlisted their skills in creating a new capsule collection of jewelry, inspired by their traditional motifs. Among the new pieces is a set of lavender shell earrings with amethysts and diamonds, accented with mosaics made of abalone, mother-of-pearl and turquoise, crafted by those artisans whom she met in Arizona.
Ms. Furmanovich said she is touched by the beauty of shells: “They remind me of the spirit of the sea, summer, nature and joy.”