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Sailor's Valentine

Contributed by Peter Coke Shell Gallery, Sheringham

Sailors’ Valentines are the hexagonal shell designs which sailors returning from the West Indies supposedly put together using attractively shaped and coloured shells collected from the Caribbean to present to their wives or girlfriends when they reached home

During the 18th and early 19th centuries sailors returning from the West Indies frequently brought back with them what became known as Sailors’ Valentines. These were symmetrical arrangements of small attractively shaped and coloured shells. They were set in a shallow octagonal wooden tray, usually provided with a hinged lid and about 300 to 400 mm across. The arrangement was often concave in shape, i.e. dipping slightly towards the centre. In the centre there was often a heart shape or a loving message to the recipient, the sailor’s wife or girlfriend, picked out in shells.

The sailor would presumably claim that he had skilfully assembled the arrangement himself while on the return voyage to England, using shells which he had personally collected from a Caribbean beach. However, it is clear that most of them were made in the West Indies for sale and were probably chosen “off the shelf”, with the exception of any personalised message which could be added to order.

The original artefacts have become keenly sought by collectors and are rarely offered for sale. The examples which are displayed in the Peter Coke Shell Gallery are reproductions based on the original designs. Peter Coke began his interest in shell artwork by first repairing and subsequently reproducing Sailors’ Valentines.

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