Maybe you remember seeing them in your grandmother’s house, or a quaint B&B by the seaside. Perhaps they’ve sailed into your vision more recently on Pinterest or Instagram. Or maybe you’ve got absolutely no idea what we’re talking about. Either way, here’s a little history of the chic-est of shell crafts, the sailor’s Valentine.
Made in the late 18th to early 19th centuries by gluing shells onto cotton batting in intricate patterns, then encasing them under glass and in an octagonal wooden frame, these delicate delights would be gifted to loved ones by sailors on their return home.
As the name suggests, they would often be centred around a heart shape design, though not always – flowers, anchors, and other nautical symbols were also common. (And even on rare occasions, rather more blush-inducing images...) Sometimes tiny shells or seeds would be arranged to spell out messages, like ‘Home Again’, ‘Forget Me Not’, ‘Forever Yours’.
Photo: Rafael Osona Auctions
The romantic tale of these were that sailors themselves, pining for their Valentines on the other side of the ocean, made them with their own rope-burned, sea salt-wizened hands. The real story is that they were purchased by sailors as ready-made gifts, primarily from Barbados. One shop in particular seems to have originated the idea and created a cottage industry on the island around them.
BH and George Belgrave, two English brothers, owned a shop in Bridgetown – Belgrave’s Curiosity Shop. The brothers organised local women to create the designs using shells and seeds indigenous to Barbados. As ships often landed in Barbados as their last stop before returning to America or Britain, the brothers sold these to sailors on the lookout for souvenirs to take home after months or even years away.
Photo: Rafael Osona Auctions
The historic designs are in high-demand by collectors but modern craftspeople, enamoured with the beauty of sailors’ Valentines, are creating them today in styles that stick closely to the charm of the originals. Folk art mixed in with contemporary interiors is a look we can get behind.
At Papier, our little hearts flutter whenever we set our eyes on one and designer Matilda Goad has fallen head over heels for them too. In fact, sailors’ Valentines were the inspiration for her alluring Papier wedding stationery collection.
A few Qs with self-confessed sailors’ Valentines admirer Matilda Goad
Hi Matilda! Where did your love of sailors' Valentines originate?
Hello! I remember spotting one in someone’s home when I was younger and being totally besotted. They are so intricate and made up of such beautiful colours and often a message.
What do you love about them?
I think anything that is made and looks beautiful from something totally organic is pretty impressive. I also think the history and story behind them is so romantic!
Do you have any yourself?
I was given one a few years ago and it’s honestly one of the items I most cherish. It sits in my bathroom on a prominent wall and makes me smile every time I walk past.
Have you ever made one?
Ha! No way. I don't have the patience!