Article by Judy Dinnick

HE TRADITION of sailors’ valentines began in 19th-century Barbados, during the times of the magnificent sailing ships. Barbados was an important port of call for English and American trading ships, and sailors would purchase gifts to take back to loved ones in England and North America. Islanders began creating charming shell mosaics in octagonal wooden boxes—crafted to represent a compass, using thousands of indigenous shells arranged in intricate designs.

Many incorporated sentimental messages such as “Forget Me Not,” “Think of Me,” and “Home Again.” These tokens of love and friendship became known as sailors’ valentines.

The Victorian love for collecting and displaying exotic objects fuelled the enthusiasm for these souvenirs. Traditionally, they consisted of two finely crafted mahogany or Spanish cedar boxes hinged to one another; over time, most that still exist from the 19th century have been separated. The insides of the boxes were lined with coloured and gold foil papers that were glued down on the edges to delineate sections of the design. Cotton batting was then laid down in each section, forming a base for the shells and seeds, which were glued on top. The complex patterns typically involved a large centre section with a heart, compass rose, anchors, or vase of flowers, and perhaps a message, all formed with shells of different sizes and colours. Scallop-shaped sections filled with contrasting shells might border the central theme.

Since the publication of Sailors’ Valentines by John Fondas in 2002, there has been a resurgence of interest in this intricate art form.

Bernard Woodman set the tone for contemporary artists when he collaborated with American folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon and Elizabeth Mumford and used their small paintings in the centre of his valentines. His piece “Mermaids Just Want to Have Fun” depicts mermaids frolicking on the beach and is an exceptional example of the modern sailors’ valentine.

Contemporary valentines do not contain cotton batting. Artists now have a wide choice of shells from all over the world, though sourcing the shells is challenging and costly as more species become rare or endangered. Tiny shells the size of a grain of rice are sought after by shell artists, along with chitons, limpets, rose tellins, purple janthinas, emerald nerites, and heart cockles. It is now common to use small paintings in the centre of the valentine, or groupings of shells to form hearts or flowers in tiny baskets. Ivory embellishments and shagreen can also be seen in contemporary valentines. Every year hundreds of shell enthusiasts gather at the Sanibel Shell Show where many beautiful contemporary valentines are exhibited and judged for quality of craftsmanship.

There are fine holdings of antique valentines in collections in Barbados, England, and the Bahamas. Those that occasionally come up for auction have been known to fetch upwards of $25,000. The shell artists from long ago would be amazed how the art form they created has developed into a passion for many, inspired by the history and romance of days gone by.

From Spring/Summer 2015 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Judy Dinnick, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art, is a decorative artist and creator of sailors’ valentines (view her website at

Antique sailors’ valentine, created in Barbados using indigenous shells such as chitons, limpets, and rice shells; restored by Gerda Reid
Photograph: Gerda Reid