Award-winning shell artist, Lois Kessler, is keeping the maritime tradition of creating sailors’ valentines alive.  Octagonal, wood, shadow box frames decorated with a wide variety of small seashells to form beautiful mosaic designs, sailors’ valentines bring a piece of history and nautical decor to today’s homes.

Sailors’ valentines created today are recreations of this art which started in the mid-1800s on the island of Barbados, a central port for sailors.  While New England lore says that homesick sailors — out at sea for months or years — made these valentines for their sweethearts, historians suggest Barbadian women and children made the shell art pieces and the sailors bought them as sentimental gifts.  Many were given to loved ones at home and the designs frequently included hearts and warm messages.  Replicating a compass, the eight sided cases enclosed in glass were hinged with a locking device to keep them closed for safe travel back home.

Ranging in price from $400 to up to $1,400, depending on the intricacy of the design, types of shells and other pieces used such as antique ivory (scrimshaw), Kessler’s sailors’ valentines take about 35 to 45 hours to make.  The boxes are made by Clifton Cloud and the late Bill Jordan, an award-winning artist both in shell art and in making perfect, octagonal, wood boxes.

ABOUT Lois Kessler

From her home near the Connecticut shore, Lois Kessler has been creating sailors’ valentines for more than 12 years.  Her “Hearts and Flowers” sailor’s valentine was chosen for inclusion in The Directory of Traditional American Crafts and “Menuncatuck” is part of the permanent collection of The Henry Whitfield House State Museum in Guilford, Connecticut.  A true expert on this maritime tradition, she enjoys speaking at libraries, museums and art galleries. Vineyard Time & Scrimshaw Gallery in Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard, sells her sailors’ valentines, pocket watches and paperweights. Visit her website, or her Etsy shop, LCKSeaShellTreasures, to view her sailors’ valentines and other items.   

All Photos Courtesy of Winter Caplanson