During a recent vacation in Careyes, Mexico, Sara Beltrán scoured the beach for beautiful shells for her Dezso jewelry line. And finding an unusual one, she thinks, is like discovering a large diamond.
“Amazing shells are hard to come by,” said Ms. Beltrán, a New York designer. “You can’t buy them or make them; it is a gift from Mother Nature.”
Ms. Beltrán belongs to a group of designers who mix simple mollusc shells with precious stones, along with gold and other precious metals, in luxurious contemporary jewelry.
Another designer is Glenn Spiro, who buys Victorian-era items decorated with shells from antique dealers and then removes those shells for use in new designs. For example, one of his earring designs featured large snail shells, each shell reinforced with a 4.5-carat central diamond surrounded by more than 150 small diamonds, while another design featured greenish scaphopod shells, also known as tusk shells, each scaphopod inlaid with eight pear-shaped diamonds totaling nearly four carats and small white diamonds totaling nearly half a carat. Prices start at $20,000.
Even the French house of Boucheron embellished a brown and white marbled seashell, conus marmoreus, with 286 diamonds totaling 6.54 carats for a brooch in its High jewelery collection Carte Blanche, a 26-piece set called Ailleurs, unveiled in Paris in July 2022.
“It is the purpose of high jewelry to evoke 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, he or she will fall in love with this kind of work, just as contemporary art clients would.”
She said that while most people associate “precious” with big, shiny diamonds and other precious stones, for her it is the opposite. Her high jewelry collections include bamboo, marble and sand: “I wanted to show that precious materials can also be found in nature, because I think it’s the best designer in the world.”
While many might consider such approaches modern or new, this way of working with shells is not new. These designers are actually taking shells back to their roots: throughout most of history, shells were highly valued and even used as currency. For example, cowrie shells were used as currency in West Africa as early as the 14th century, and later they were used for trade between African, Asian and European countries. For centuries, Native Americans shaped clams into beads, some of which were added to ceremonial garments and accessories, while others were used as currency known as wampum.
In the early 1940s, shell jewelry evolved, as Fulco di Verdura, the Italian aristocrat turned jewelry designer in New York, molded lion’s paw and scallop shells into glamorous statement pieces worn by clients such as Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers and the actress Paulette Goddard. The designer bought some of those shells from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and had them set with gold, diamonds and sapphires.
New York jeweler Seaman Schepps also created his signature turbo shell earrings in the 1940s. The style originated when a client asked him to transform a pair of Indian Ocean turbo shells into earrings. The earrings, adorned with diamonds and other precious stones, remain a bestseller for the brand, now owned by Anthony Hopenhajm.
“There’s a lot of great historical jewelry out there,” he said. “But there are very few designs like our turbo earrings that are still worn by both women in their 20s and their grandmothers.”
The organic beauty of a shell seems to attract everyone from the beachcombers who pick them from the shore to jewelers, who see countless ways to add texture, pattern and volume to their designs.
As marine animals secrete layers of calcium carbonate to form hard shells to protect their soft bodies, it creates the uniform patterns and varying hues that make shells so captivating, said Jessica Goodheart, assistant curator of molluscs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. .
“The coiled patterns are formed when the snail’s body twists during torsion,” said Dr. Goodheart, “and the varying colors come from chemicals generated internally or as a result of something being introduced into the diet.” If the shells are thrown away, they eventually wash up on the shore.
Many people associate shells with casual jewelry styles, such as 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 are coming back to the fore .
The organic origin of shells is what attracted Claudia Ortega, an interior designer based in Mexico City, in Ms. Beltrán’s jewelry.
“Sara is one of the jewelers who break new ground and show us that jewelry doesn’t have to be so rigid and only made of gold and precious stones,” says Ms. Ortega, who has been following the work of Ms. Beltrán for more than 20 years. collects. a decade. “Her pieces are fun and contemplative, and they’re not a show of money or value, but they say so much more about the person wearing them.”
For Mrs. Beltrán, the value of her designs is not in the value of their gold or precious stones. “The shells remind me of the sea, the smells, the sounds and the tranquility,” she said.
She takes the shells she collects – on the beach or during visits to a shell dealer in Paris – to Jaipur, India, where she designs pieces inspired by the symmetry of the Art Deco style, then has them made by artisans with whom she worked for years.
“I put down all the shells and combine them with the gems that will enhance their colors and patterns,” Ms. Beltrán said. For example, she topped each of her white cone shell earrings with a one-carat polki diamond set in 18-carat rose gold; combined a large orange shell with a three-carat Madeira citrine for a necklace; and adorned an orange-flecked mitra stictica shell with a three-carat emerald-cut citrine set in 18-carat rose gold. Prices for her shell designs range from $1,700 to $20,000 depending on the gemstones.
Brazilian designer Silvia Furmanovich has also been using natural elements in her colorful jewelry for 20 years. Those elements include bamboo, wood and shells, and, she said, she continues to look for other unusual materials and artisan crafts to incorporate into her designs.
For example, during a 2019 trip to Kyoto, Japan, she purchased some antique shellfish painted in gold leaf depicting scenes from Japanese literature for use in a matching game called Kai-awase. which was popular during the Edo period (1603-1868). She turned those shells into earrings studded with gold and diamonds, some accented with emeralds, others with fire opals.
And on a trip to Sedona, Arizona, she met a number of Native American artists who specialized in inlaying gemstones into shells, and they used their skills to create 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, made by the artisans 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.”