Mollusk architects, fiber makers and marine hunters created our sandy souvenirs. Here’s a veteran collector’s guide to their stories.

By Anna Marlis Burgard  |  Photograph by Carolyn Watson
From the July 2018 issue

FeatureSeashellsLEAD A Beachcomber’s Bounty - Delaware Beach LifeThe treasures we find at the beach are all elements of an ocean’s story; the shoreline is the introduction where we meet some of its characters and are given clues to their far-reaching communities. When you consider the millions of mollusk shells that tumble to shore, you realize that the world’s coastlines are bejeweled beyond measure. What we spot as we look through sand and seaweed is only a hint of the world beneath the waves, of how snails and clams and other creatures survive and interact.

Frank Lloyd Wright sometimes placed seashells before him at Sunday breakfast, and spoke with reverence to those gathered about the animals’ design solutions. From the spherical to the triangular to the fancifully swirling, mollusks’ shells exhibit an astonishing capacity for variation — they’re architects of the sea, building magnificent homes that they add on to as they grow.

With fluted ribs, spikes and turreted spires, and sporting stripes, plaids or spots, it’s no wonder that these sculptural wonders have inspired such a range of uses: Cowries were exchanged as currency, scallops were used as hide scrapers, and conchs as trumpets for military and spiritual ceremonies (a use echoed today by Dominican fishmongers announcing their catches, West Indies cricket match officials, and entrants in the annual Key West Conch Shell Blowing Contest).

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