Do you like sea shells and like collecting them? Connie Miller of Lewes and Julia Smith of Milton sure do. They turn thousands of sea shells into an old art form called Sailor’s Valentines. As some shells are no larger than a pinhead, it’s a painstaking process.
Imagine a mosaic where various pieces of glass are replaced by sea shells. The visual display is stunning.
These works of art have little to do with Valentine’s Day. The original Sailor’s Valentines consisted of two octagonal-shaped wooden boxes that were hinged together. The boxes were the cases containing the ships’ navigational instruments. They opened like a book exposing designs that incorporated hearts, anchors and flowers displayed in intricate geometric patterns and often included sentimental messages such as “Forget Me Not”, Remember Me” or “With Love”. The Smithsonian Garden Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC boasts examples.
The period from 1830-1890 was the heyday of Sailor’s Valentines. Sailors away from home for months and even years, brought them home from a voyage and gave them to their loved one/s. Today, originals are rare, considered collectables and are quite pricey.
Barbados played a key role in the success of Sailor’s Valentines. English brothers – BH and George Belgrave – owned a shop in Bridgetown called Belgrave’s Curiosity Shop. They organized local women to create designs using shells that either were indigenous to Barbados or imported from Indonesia.
Sailing ships often made Barbados their last stop before returning to America, England or elsewhere. The brothers sold the Valentines to sailors looking for souvenirs to take home.
Connie Miller saw her first Sailor’s Valentine in 1986 in Sanibel, Florida where her parents vacationed. Her father scoped out local shows so she could display her wares. “My parents took my work all around the west coast of Florida while I was still working,” she said. Her father was a Delaware River Pilot and they sailed together for 45 years.
She was an art teacher at the Rehoboth and Milton Elementary Schools and Cape Henlopen High School before retiring. She attended the University of Delaware as did Smith who majored in sculpture and metal smithing. She has an MFA from Washington University in St Louis.
“Creating a Sailor’s Valentine can take hundreds of hours depending on how detailed or elaborate they are,” says Smith. Miller spends the better part of each day – from about 8 am to 5 pm in her home studio. The shells are adhered to the flat part of the box with glues that can be purchased at art supply stores like Michael’s.
Miller says traditional Valentines are those made in the 1800s. Contemporary Valentines are those made in more recent times. She is a collaborator on a book called “Sailor’s Valentines: Their Journey Through Time” that goes into great detail about the art objects.
Traditional Valentines are in high demand by collectors. A small double valentine that 20 years ago sold for $350 to $600 dollars now can cost $3,500 – $8,500 dollars now. Depending on the size, some can fetch between $8,500 and $18,000, particularly the larger double Valentines, according to the web site incollect.com
Contemporary Valentines, like those made by Miller, also can cost several thousand dollars but mass-produced versions carried at Rehoboth’s Sea Shell Shop are much less.
“It’s not an inexpensive endeavor but the results are beautiful treasures to be handed down. I loved them from the first one I ever saw,” said Julia Smith. “When design decisions can be a very meditative pursuit for those of us inclined to that sort of work. It’s not for everybody, but it’s my harmony with the universe.”
Miller and Smith make Valentines of various sizes. Most are single octagonal boxes. They rely on various sources for the shells. Miller has created large scale signs for various residential communities including The Tides, Captiva Sands and Oyster Bay.
Both women were raised in beach loving, sailing families. They exhibit in shows that feature Sailor’s Valentines. Both have been honored for their work. “Sanibel is the shell capital in the U.S.,” said Miller. Sanibel has a shell show which she plans to attend in March.
Shows primarily are sponsored by regional Shell Clubs. Miller says that Florida clubs are still quite active, and North Carolina has a thriving club at present. “People from all over the world collect Sailor’s Valentines,” says Miller.
Learn more about Smith by visiting her website, Smith Studios. Miller does not have a website (please email us directly if you’d like to send her a message: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Delaware Seashore State Park just below Dewey Beach at Indian River has offered lessons on how to make a Sailor’s Valentine. Their most recent class was held in December. (Contact the park for further information: (302) 227-2800. Or search the DE State Parks website for upcoming programs. ) For some Valentine’s Fun, Zwaanendael Museum (Lewes) will put hosting a Sailor’s Valentine class. On February10th, from 11am – 3pm you can learn about historic sailor valentines, and then make one yourself. (Craft free and for all ages.) Call 302-645-1148 or email email@example.com
Mary Jo Tarallo spent much of her career in public relations with various non-profits and spent 40 years involved with the ski industry s a journalist, public relations director for a national trade association and as executive director of the Learn to Ski and Snowboard initiative. Prior to her ski industry involvement she worked for the Maryland International Center in Baltimore and United Way of Central Maryland. She won a Gold Award for TV programming for a United Way simulcast that starred Oprah Winfrey. She has been cited for her work by numerous organizations. Mary Jo grew up in Baltimore, attended the University of Maryland and Towson University, lived in Washington, DC for 21 years and has been a full time resident of Rehoboth Beach and Milton since May 2019.