Make a modern version of sailors' valentines

While traditional gifts like candy, flowers and cards are wonderful for Valentine's Day, why not make an investment of time instead to show someone how much he or she means to you?

Shell mosaics, or sailors' valentines, were tidings of love carried home by seamen who bought them from craftsmen on the island of Barbados in the British West Indies. Traditionally, these mosaics were encased in octagonal boxes and featured designs like a compass rose at the center. They were popular from the 1830s through the 1890s and are highly collectible. Even today, sailors' valentines created by shell artists in New England and Florida often command prices from $400 to $2,500.

Our version of the sailors' valentines are infinitely simpler. For one thing, we used a 10-inch-by-12-inch rectangle instead of an octagon.

Heart-shaped valentine


Seashells in various colors and shapes ($2.99 for a bag of mixed shells, at the craft store)

Mat board

Glue (We used Liquid Fusion, also found at the craft store.)


1. Sort the shells according to type and color. Muffin tins make this process easy and orderly and the beauty of the individual shapes and the range of colors on even the tiniest of shells makes the task enjoyable.

2. A note on the gluing process: Lay one long bead of glue per line and then use tweezers to set the shells in place. Keep the shells similar in size and facing the same direction. The glue I used sets after about 30 minutes, which allows for adjustments. While I waited for one section to dry, I could work on another section and rotate among the areas.

3. Decide on a design. Our pink shells, known as rose-petal tellins, fit naturally into a heart shape, which became the design's focal point. Then we filled in the heart. A few rosy pink shells formed an "X" (symbolizing a kiss) in the center. (The Internet is a great source of inspiration when trying to decide on different designs.) We then filled in the rest of the heart with white and pearly shells. One note: Try to keep the composition balanced as you plan the overall design. If one type of shell is used on the bottom, it should be used on the top, and the same with the sides and corners.

4. Draw semicircles around the edge. I used a compass, but even the bottom of a drinking glass makes a good template.

5. Glue shells onto the pencil-marked semicircles. It's easier to work inward from the pencil line.

6. After the semicircles are filled, fill in the background between the central heart and the scalloped perimeter. I chose one color, a small, black, round shell called a nerite.

Mini shell flowers

I also made a couple of very easy shell flowers and framed them in coordinating mini silver frames. Just remove the glass to accommodate the dainty flowers.



Black card stock, cut to fit the frame


Shells (5 of a single variety and 1 round one for the middle of the flower)

White paint

Liner brush

Frame, glass removed

1. Place a dot of glue about the size of a pencil eraser in the center of the card stock.

2. Place the five shells on their backs in a circular pattern, long edge down, so that the tip ends touch. The raised point, or back of the shell, will stick up slightly. The glue is thick, so when the shells are placed on their edges, they stay in place. And when all five are in place, they lean on the others, giving the design a three-dimensional effect.

3. Once the flower is set, place a smaller round shell in the center. We used a tiny yellow nerite.

4. Finish the design by painting a simple stem and two leaves. Then place the card stock in the frame.

An even easier flower

We sorted through our big bowl of shells and found five white swirly shells that were similar in size. We glued those in a circle, making sure they all faced the same way, then glued a little green nerite in the middle.

We then finished with the same white paint and a simple stem and curvy leaves.