Jade scalloped wallpaper by Liberty

Sea Shell Scallop Motifs in Art Deco Design

Jan 30, 2023 | art deco jewelry

Not just for tropical resort decor or Miami Beach, the scallop was an Art Deco motif easily repeated for textile and architectural borders. Scalloped edges softened the hard geometry of 1920s design.

The scallop, a shell-like shape with a curved edge and straight, fanned lines has long been patterned for fashion and accessories, and decor including upholstery textiles, architectural borders, and interior molding.

When was the Shell Motif Used before the 1920s?

As with many design elements in the 1920s, the sea shell motif is borrowed from ancient and early modern civilizations including:

  1. Ancient Greek and Roman architecture
  2. Religious symbolism in the Middle Ages
  3. Renaissance fashion
  4. 17th & 18th Century textile embroidery
  5. 19th Century’s Gothic Revival architecture

The scallop was used as a decorative element in the arts and architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was often found on pottery, sculptures, and buildings.

Sea Shell in Art Deco | antique drawing of shells
Antique print of drawn renderings of The Shell.

As the Birkenstock Furniture Library in High Point, NC explains of the sea shell design motif: “In primitive civilizations, sea shells were used as money and powdered shells were thought to have aphrodisiac powers.”

In the Middle Ages, the scallop shell became associated with the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route in Spain, and became a symbol of the Christian faith.

Sea Shell in Art Deco | Santiago Pilgrims

Pilgrims who made the journey would often collect scallop shells as a symbol of their journey and as a reminder of their faith.

During the Renaissance, the scallop became popular in lace trim on clothing and accessories and was a symbol of feminine beauty. Consider The Birth of Venus, the Roman goddess associated with of love and beauty, by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.

The Birth of Venus, 1478. Detail of the Birth of Venus in scallop shell. Museum: GALLERIA DEGLI UFFIZI, FLORENCIA, ITALIA. Author: SANDRO BOTTICELLI. APHRODITE
Sandro Botticelli. The Birth of Venus, 1478. Detail of the Birth of Venus in scallop shell. Galleria Degli Uffizi, Florence

In textiles, scallops were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries as an ornamental edging on clothing, curtains, and bed linens. Curved, scalloped edges were featured on furniture edges and clothing hems and necklines for both men and women. They were also incorporated into needlework and embroidery, again in the form of scalloped borders and hemstitching.

And they comprised the patterns of dress fabrics themselves.

In 19th century architecture, the scallop was often used as a decorative element in Gothic Revival buildings, particularly in the form of scalloped arches, windows, and moldings. In Gothic cathedrals, scallops were often used as a motif in capitals, corbels, and friezes.

Sea Shell in Art Deco | Multifoil arch in the Aljaferia, Zaragoza, Spain | minusOne jewelry
Multifoil arch in the Aljaferia, Zaragoza, Spain

This style, which was characterized by its elaborate and ornate details, often included scalloped edges on arches, window frames, and other architectural elements.

And of course, designers today still incorporate scalloped detail in all facets of jewelry, fashion and interior design.

Blue Art Deco High Heels featured on artdecoweddings.com
Blue Art Deco High Heels featured on artdecoweddings.com

The Scalloped Sea Shell in Art Deco Furniture

UK Evening Standard reports scallop shapes and shells are everywhere in interiors this season in Gatsby-inspired seaside fashion: “In the roaring Twenties, decorators in London and New York loved the curvy, interlocking patterns of shells — an Art Deco staple on metallic and lacquered wall finishes and exotic furniture inlays.”

(“Seaside” for Gatsby means a Long Island ultra-rich community comparable to today’s Hamptons.)

Chairs and sofas structured with the scalloped edge show off the motif best, and are a good place to acknowledge that not all things Art Deco were sharp and angular.

This leather chair was made by early Art Deco-era designer Eileen Gray sometime between 1917 and 1919.

According to Art History Unstuffed: “The Dragons (or Dragon) chair took two years to craft. This small chair was only twenty-four inches tall and, when the brown leather chair came up for auction, Christie’s described it as “small.” Once owned by Yves St.-Laurent and sold from his estate for $28 million, the arms of the Dragons armchair are a pair of carved and spotted wooden snakes which wind around and become the feet of the chair.”

Creamy firry white Modern scalloped chair available on 1st Dibs
Modernist scalloped chair available on 1st Dibs

Multiplying Sea Shells in Art Deco Decor

Another way that scallops were used in Art Deco design was through simple repeating shapes and interlocking designs. The scallop was a motif easily patterned for fashion and upholstery textiles, architectural borders, interior molding.

Hundreds of contemporary wallpaper designs feature scallops in odes to Art Deco.

I love them all. They’re perfect for a powder room, and I don’t care that interior decorators have come together to pooh-pooh accent walls. I still love those too.

Which 1920s Jewelers Used the Sea Shell Scallop?

Although there’s no Art Deco jeweler known for using the scallop as part of its brand, Tiffany’s & Co. designers incorporated the scallop in a few pieces.

This jabot pin – worn in the lapel or as a hat pin in a cloche – used the motif at top and bottom of this design.

Tiffany & Co. (c. 1925-1930) Jabot pin
Tiffany & Co. (c. 1925-1930)

This jabot pin also echoes the structure of a turban, signaling another trait of the era’s jewelry design. Read more about the Exotic in Art Deco jewelry design.

This blue enamel bracelet with gold scallop by Schlumberger, also made in green enamel, subtly includes miniature 18K gold sea shells.

This blue enamel bracelet with gold scallop by Schlumberger was also made in green enamel.

As reported by Mark Lawson Antiques, Jean Michel Schlumberger was one of only four designers allowed to sign his work at Tiffany & Co., accompanied by Paloma Picasso, Elsa Peretti and Frank Gehry. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs has held retrospectives of Schlumberger’s work three times, most recently in 1995.

If you like the scalloped sea-shell motif, whether because of its spiritual symbolism or for its power as an aphrodisiac, you’ll like the Art Deco designs available at minusOne. I’m much more affordable than Tiffany’s…

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