I Wouldn't Give Up on Shellcraft
I BOUGHT a shell kit and made up the suggested pieces. It sounded so simple, but to start with my fingers were ten fumbling thumbs. And those shells! They seemed so tiny and so slippery. How they did escape me! I still am positive that those first shells actually crawled!
I would pick up a tiny shell, touch it to the cement, put it down where I had planned for it to stay, turn it loose and it would follow my fingers right back up. I'm sure that more of the cement in that first tube stayed on my fingers and my tweezers than ever stayed on the shells.
But I'm a stubborn sort. And so I kept persisting in trying to put shells where they tried not to go. That was a long time ago, and as I grew more adept at handling them, they gradually became more co-operative and less active. Shells and I understand each other pretty well, now.
MY FIRST interest in shellcrafting goes back much farther than does my actual work with shells. When my daughter returned to Colorado from California, she brought a small pin and two lamps, all made of sea shells. I am sure that she had no idea what a far-reaching program she was starting. Always interested in handcraft of any sort, I was intrigued by this new (to me) type of thing and promptly began wishing I could learn more about it.
However, I was far too busy with other things at that time to do anything except wish. So shells were filed away with all those other someday things I was going to do—when I had time.
Some two years later I learned that one of the projects for our Home Demonstration group was to be shell jewelry. I was delighted. Then I found that we were to move to another part of the state before time for the lesson. Knowing that I was very much disappointed, the Home Demonstration agent offered to give me the lesson in advance. A friend took me to the office, and I watched a tiny pair of earrings take shape. Each earring was simply five small yellow lucines set into the earscrew cup with the hinges down. They were such dainty, pretty little things! And from that moment I was lost in the magic of shells.
That was, and is, all the instruction I have ever had. The rest I have learned the hard way—all "alone by myself." But every bit of it has been fun.
Yes, I bought a kit and made up the suggested pieces. I have kept a couple of them. I can smile at them now. But they were really hard work then. They were very far from works of art. But somehow, instead of being discouraged, I felt quite sure that I could make better-looking ones next time.
So I ordered catalogs advertised in hobby magazines, studied pictures and names, and began to learn more about shells and their many sizes, types and colors; and how each might be used to the best advantage. Ideas of my own began to peep around corners in my mind, and I wanted to try them out. I ordered several kinds and colors of shells, several sizes and shapes of plastic discs, an assortment of earscrews and pinbacks, a tube of cement, and began my experimenting.
The next ones did look better, too. I could see it, and I could also prove it, because I still had the first ones! I gradually began to change and improve my pieces; a few tiny shells added for a more lacy effect, an odd small shell to fill in, a change of color here and a bit of accent there. I was learning, gradually, to achieve the effect that I wanted. And ever since those first struggles, I have grown more and more absorbed in this business of making pretty things out of the homes of "various unsegmented, soft-bodied invertebrates." And wouldn't they be surprised! My interest in shells is deeper every year, and I am rather an old hand at using them now.
I HAVE no story of instant, spectacular success. Mine has been, instead, a gradual but steadily increasing thing. I had made and sold various types of handwork for some time. And so, when I felt that I had a few shell pieces which were really acceptable, I simply added them to my other items. These first pieces sold, and I have been selling ever since. I add new designs constantly of course. When working out a new pattern, I can usually see several ways to vary it. There is simply no limit to designs with shells.
I sell, at a discount and on consignment, to one gift shop and one small store. My daughter, who has been as delighted as I at the results of this thing which she started, always finds time in her busy life to show her sample case of my things. She keeps this at her home, and also takes it to various places, upon request, and sends me orders. Now my younger daughter also has samples in her home, and sends me orders from the town which was my home when I had my only lesson in shellcrafting.
Two other young women, in two other towns, also have samples and send me orders at my present home in Sterling, Colorado. And my own big sample case goes in the car on every weekend trip. Because invariably someone says, "Do you have any of your jewelry with you?" The times that I come home with no orders at all are very rare. I do not "peddle" my things. Neither do the girls. If people ask, out comes the case. Not before. I always have a good assortment at home for all drop-in customers.
I have also sold at bazaars, on invitation, giving a commission on total sales. And, again upon request, I take my samples to group meetings of various sorts, and take orders.
The largest amount that has come in at one time was at a bazaar, when $75 worth of jewelry was sold and I had more than $25 in orders to fill later. At another bazaar, sales came to $40 in a two-hour period. Of course these are the exciting high spots. They do not happen too often.
The two months before Christmas are always the very busiest times, of course. But Valentine season, Easter, Mother's Day and graduation times find me busy, too. And I do sell, some, all through the year.
People very often comment on pieces I am wearing, and this interest often leads to orders. It is not at all unusual to have some perfect stranger say, "I have been looking at the pin you are wearing. Is it made of shells? And where did you get it?" This is most pleasing, of course, and one of the things that keep me loving my shell work; whether it results in an order or merely a very nice compliment. Keeps things interesting! A pretty shell pin makes a very good conversation piece at any time, anywhere.
Another interesting source of orders is letters I receive from people whom I have never even seen. For instance: "Dear Mrs. Brown: A friend gave me a necklace of white discs with brown shells and topaz rhinestones. Your address label was on the box. Will you tell me how much these are, and whether you have them in other colors?"
I am happy to write her that the necklaces are $1.75, and that I do have them in five other colors. And usually I soon have an order, or possibly several, and sometimes several new customers. Some of these contacts have grown into a regular correspondence. Keeps my mail very interesting.
PEOPLE SO often ask me why I do not try to go into this in a bigger way. But so far, I like it just as it is. Because now it is an interesting as well as a definitely profitable hobby, and is only as demanding as I allow it to be. And I never grow tired of it.
During the busy seasons, I sometimes think that I already have more than I can handle. But after a big rush is over, I have to admit that I enjoy the excitement too, and would really miss the hurry and scramble to get things made and orders filled.
There are a number of ways by which I am sure I could increase my sales if I had the time to turn out more work. But this is rather exacting work; most of it with tweezers and under a strong light, and one cannot work at that sort of thing too steadily. After just so long, I find that I am seeing two shells where there is only one, and I have to leave them for a while.
Also I am a housewife, after all, and there are small items like food and dishes and such, that are always with me!
I try to fill all orders within a week after I receive them, unless I am out of certain supplies and have to wait on an order myself. Sometimes a certain item is in such demand that it is difficult to keep up my materials.
I use white, cotton-filled jewelry boxes and pack very carefully when mailing. As to prices, I figure the exact cost of the item, the time required for construction, and add a small amount for profit. Some pieces use more expensive shells and take less time. Others take less expensive shells, but are more intricate. I price them accordingly. I do not set a price on a design until I have made at least four; the last one goes much more quickly than the first! At an average, my time figures about $1 an hour. Less on some things, more on others. One does not get rich at shellcrafting. But there is a real satisfaction in seeing a new design, all your own take shape under your hands.
EVERY HANDCRAFTER develops her own pet methods and short-cuts. We learn, as we go along, the way that is most convenient for us. For instance, my work space is limited. I have no space where I can leave my work, really out of the way, for a day or so. I work at my kitchen table. And I do have to clear it of shells occasionally! Because my husband has a most peculiar habit of wanting to eat—about three times a day! (Who started that, anyway?). And, although he is never really sure that there won't be more shells than food in evidence at mealtime, he is most patient about it. For these reasons (yes, I mean both of them, his hunger and his patience!) I have developed this method of handling more quickly all the small and varied items I use when working: I use large pieces of cardboard cartons, and cover them with white shelf paper and then with waxed paper, secured at back with scotch tape. On a couple of these I place the small boxes of shells, the cement, pinbacks, earscrews, tweezers, lacquer and such. Then I use one board to work on and another to place finished articles on, to dry. In this way I can assemble the things I need, from my storage drawers, and carry them to my table. Then I can pick up the boards and lay them aside for a few hours, instead of having to pick up every article.
I thoroughly enjoy my shell work, and am never really ready to stop, even when I begin to see double. There are always new ideas, and new ways to use the same old shells. Catalogs have many suggestions and designs. You can copy these if you like. Or you can let the imagination take over, and soon you will have a new design, entirely different, and all of your own. There is never any boredom in the life of a shellcrafter.
THE PANSY crescent pin and earring set has been, and still is, a very popular number for me, and is an easy one for the beginner. For this, you will need a tube of shellcraft cement, one two-inch plastic crescent disc, one 1¼-inch safety pinback, two medium earscrews, small white and light green gars, and five ready made pansies. The experienced shellcrafter can make these, but I should advise the beginner to buy them from a shell supply house.
Spread a very thin layer of cement along the outer edge of the disc. Edge with white gars, placing the little notched points out.
Leave the extreme points to be finished last. Turn the crescent around and edge the inner side with the gars. Be sure to keep the line of gars even, so that your crescent will retain its perfect shape in the lacy edge which the gars produce. Now finish the points of crescent, being sure to have one gar finishing the exact point on each end.
Now spread cement lightly over the exposed center of the crescent. Build this up slightly with cotton and moisten cotton with cement. Place the three pansies as shown in the photograph and fill in below and around them with white gars, and just a few green ones, until your design seems complete. Let dry on a flat surface. When completely dry, attach pinback to back of plastic. Use a few strands of cotton here for extra strength. Let dry for about twenty-four hours before handling.
The earrings are simply pansies placed on earscrews. Spread a bit of cement in the little cup. Add a tiny bit of cotton, dampen it with cement, place pansies in place and let dry.
The cut shell pin is a bit more difficult, and is more fragile. The cut shells do break more easily and should be sold with that understanding. If carefully handled they will wear almost indefinitely. But shells are, of course, a type of thing that will break. And cut shells are thin slices of whole shells, and therefore much more easily broken. However, to me, their lacy, dainty effect is well worth any extra care needed in handling. (Never place your shell jewelry in a box with heavier costume jewelry! Keep it in its own box; be a bit careful with it, and you will be wearing it for a long, long time.)
THE CUT shell pin in the photograph, uses two baby cup roses, one gold coffee shell, one zebra shell, one ceritheum shell, one blue olive slice, two ring-top cowry center slices, one end-cut cowry slice, four small green rice, three small pink rice, one lavender teardrop, and three white baby cups centered with a small pearl and placed in the blue olive slice.
First, make up two baby cup roses, one red, one pale pink. To make these, place a bit of cement (just a drop) on a piece of waxed paper. Place six baby cup shells in this, in a circle, overlapping them just a bit, with the hinge side up. Inside this circle place four more baby cups, overlapping a bit, the same way. Then two more placed together make the center, and your rose is finished. Let the two roses dry for several hours. Then remove from paper.
Use a 1¼-inch round plastic disc and spread a very small amount of cement over the entire surface. Do not use any cotton here as it may show between the flowers. Squeeze out a bit of cement on a piece of waxed paper, place a little on the back of the roses and place them as shown in the photograph of the pin. Place the cut cowry shells, the blue olive slice, the gold coffee, the ceritheum and the zebra, in position as shown. Make a tiny, three-petal flower of the three white baby cups, place it inside the blue olive slice and put the pearl in, for a center. The three green rice show dark, in the picture. Two are placed in the cowry slices and one beside the coffee shell. The three pink rice show light in the picture. Two of them, with a green gar between, are below the pink rose, and at left of the olive slice. The other pink rice is next to the zebra. The other green gar is between the end cut cowry and the white ceritheum. The lavender tear drop is at base of coffee shell.
When all shells are in place, leave on a flat surface until completely dry. I like to leave mine for at least twelve hours. Then place a line of cement across back of disc, for the pinback. I like these placed rather near the top, because the pins hang better. Add a wee bit of cotton, and enough cement to make it damp. Put a bit of cement on the pinback and press it in place. Let dry thoroughly.
Shells of this type may be arranged in any pattern that suits your fancy. Let your imagination go, and "build" your own bouquet to suit yourself. I make a number of designs that are quite similar.
These are only two of my many, many designs, but are easy ones to start with. Or, you can always buy a shell kit and make up the suggested pieces. Either way, shellcrafting is fun.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.