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Starting a Shell Collection

Are you interested in shells and want to start a collection of your own? Or have you perhaps inherited a collection, and wish to continue with it or preserve it?

If you are new to the hobby, then this resource could be helpful. It will explain how to approach shell collecting, and then go on to give guidance on cleaning, treating, labelling and storing of your precious commodities.

And if the information below does not cover all your needs, you are welcome to contact us and ask - we will try to assist you as best we can.

First things first

Before getting into the details of how to preserve and take care of a shell collection, you should first decide what you would want to collect. If you are reading this because you have inherited or have been gifted an old collection, and simply want to know how to preserve it, then skip to the sections below. But, if you are new to the hobby and like what you see - and have decided that you also want to get into collecting - then you will need to start somewhere.

What to collect

This is not a simple riddle to solve! The Molluscan phylum is enormous, and collectibility resides primarily within five Classes, those being the Polyplacophora (chitons), Gastropoda (snails), Cephalopoda (cuttlefish and nautilus), Bivalvia (clam shells) and Scaphopoda (tusk shells). There are others, but these are the most popular. Each of these Classes contain an enormous amount of species - simply too much for the average person to collect in a single lifetime. As an example, the Gastropods - arguably the most popular of the lot - contains 65000 to 80000 known species, spread across Marine, Fresh Water and Terrestrial habitats.

So the first task of the new collector is to decide what the collection will consist of - to determine the ultimate goal and end state of the effort. This is important, because you don't want to start collecting haphazardly, anything and everything that shines and looks beautiful, only to realise later on that you actually want to specialise and focus on a single shell Family. This will lead to major changes in your collection, potentially requiring selling or exchanging.

It should be noted that your collecting preferences may change in any event over the course of time, but it is a good idea to do some proper planning before plunging headlong into a potentially unattainable endeavour.

Collecting models

It should be noted that there is really no right or wrong way of collecting. In other words, nobody has the right to criticise your collecting preferences. We are individuals and we all have unique taste, even when it comes to our hobbies. So this section will only highlight some of the more popular models followed by collectors over the years.

Shell Family

One of the most popular models followed by collectors is to collect only shells within a specific shell Family. The section below highlights some of the most popular shell Families. Some Families are very large and contain very rare species, which may require some tailoring within the Family - perhaps sticking to specific Genera, or shells from a specific region.

Distribution and region

Some collectors opt to only collect shells living within a specific region or a specific distribution area. For example, many South African collectors collect only shells found within South or Southern African waters (marine), or within terrestrial South Africa (land and fresh water). In addition, some collectors tailor their preferences even further by sticking to specific shell Families within the selected Region.

Aesthetic vs Scientific

It would be advantageous to decide from the get-go if you will be collecting shells based on their appearance only (shape, colours, pattern, ornamenation) - i.e. an aesthetic collection - or for scientific appeal. A scientific collection does not care about appearance as much as it cares for accuracy, data and completeness of the collection. A scientific collection should also be stored in the correct way, whereas an aesthetic collection may be displayed on open shelves or inside glass-fronted display cabinets. Refer below for more details on strorage options.

Popular Families

Some of the most popular marine shell Families to collect are the following:

  • Cypraeidae (cowries)

  • Conidae (cones)

  • Volutidae (volutes)

  • Muricidae (murex)

  • Strombidae (true conchs)

Cleaning your shells

Freshly-collected shells are often encrusted with calcification deposits, barnacles, sea grass, algal growth or other foreign debris. To fully appreciate the actual shell, this needs to be cleaned off. There are various techniques that can be used to accomplish this, e.g. ultrasonics, muriatic acid, hard tools and buffing wheels, but the most utilised method is to submerge the shells in bleach.

The bleach will (over time) clean off all encrustation and other deposits, the time needed depending on the severity of the encrustation.

A good in-depth visual overview of this cleaning method can be found on YouTube by clicking this LINK.


The method above is not to be used on shell species that have natural gloss. These include the cowries, olives and ovulids.

Treating your shells

Once you have cleaned your shells, you will need to treat the surface to restore the colours and preserve the shell. Products that work well include:

  • Baby oil [LINK]

  • Mineral oil / "technical oil" (preferred) [LINK]

Simply apply a small amount of the oil to the surface using a lint-free cloth. Wipe off any excess and set aside to allow the oil to soak into the surface. Some species have a more porous surface, and will require additional coats until the oil no longer soaks into the surface.

The process should be repeated every few months. This will preserve the shell for longer.

Cataloging your collection

A true scientific collection should always be accompanied by information. Each shell should be linked to data indicating at least the following:

  • Shell name (Family, Genus, Species, author + date)

  • Size (mm)

  • Unique characteristics of the shell

  • Locality - where it was collected (nearset town, port, island, atoll, etc)

  • Habitat - e.g. on sand, reef, wreck, coral, rubble, rocks, sea cave + depth collected

  • Method - by hand, snorkel, SCUBA, dredged, etc

  • Date collected

  • Original collector / owner

  • Current owner

You may add additional information as required.

The data may be hand-written or typed (printed) on paper slips and stored along with each individual specimen. Some collectors litterally fold up the paper slips and jam them inside the aperture of the shell, whilst others opt to keep the slips inside the individual storage containers where the specimens are stored (see below).

Another option is to create an electronic database linking the data with the actual specimens in the drawers. The choice is yours!

Storage options

The way in which your collection will be strored is largely dependent on the type of collection you have or intend to start with.

Aesthetic collection

Most aesthetic collections are stored openly, mainly for viewing pleasure, typically in glass-fronted display cabinets, on open shelving or inside glass-topped coffee tables.


It is advisable to keep an aesthetic collection out of direct sunlight! Sunlight will over time cause shells to become faded, reducing colour and overall vibrancy.

Scientific collection

A scientific collection should always be stored in such a way that it leads to maximum preservation of the specimens, for posterity and to remain as close to the original collecting state as possible. It is true that all shells fade over time once removed from the ocean, no matter how stringent the storage method is, but all effort should nonetheless be made to preserve specimens as much as possible.

To this end, a scientific collection should be stored out of direct sunlight, and as far as possible away from dust, heat and high humidity. Such specimens are usually strored in drawers, either subdivided / partitioned to create some sort of order or neatness inside the drawer, or in clear plastic boxes, kept inside the drawers. The data slips should accompany each individual specimen inside the drawers.

A good visual overview of storage methods can be found on YouTube by clicking this LINK.


Care should be taken when selecting the type of cabinet or set of drawers to be used. Certain types of wood can, over time, destroy the shells. This happens when the wood releases fumes that, under the correct circumstances, can lead to a decaying of the shell substrate (calcium carbonate). This process is irreversable once it has occurred - and it is known as Byne's Decay.

To learn more about this problem, and how to prevent it, download our article on the matter HERE.

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