Monday, December 01, 2003

ENV: About the grading of shells

From notes and ideas i've been assimilating since the 70's . .


A System For Grading Shells
© 2000-2005 tony gallucci

The current system began with the terms Gem, Fine, Good and Fair being used to describe certain aesthetic levels of shell "quality," but in recent times has taken on the baggage of multiple plus (and occasionally minus) marks not associated with a particular scale or designating specific flaws, but instead reflecting a rather subjective analysis of condition only (and disregarding structural "normality" or intrinsic value). The ratings were guided solely by increasing monetary value of the shell on a rather winding aesthetic trajectory such that the "worst" freaks, some of them hardly identifiable as members of their species, often commanded the higher prices (sometimes by multiples). That the system is built on a somewhat arbitrary aesthetic scale, more in tune with collector whim and fetish than the actual condition of, and intrinsic value of, the shell itself seems contradictory to the idea of seeking "perfect" specimens.

For that reason, I have devised this system (still somewhat adolescent in development) that is geared toward the intrinsic value of the shell for its species. That is: how does the individual specimen compare to the species it represents as it is known in nature. And for that reason, the ideal "A" shell (as the premier specimens will be graded) is intended to be one that is perfect in structure as we expect it (thus leaving freaks to a lower category), is within the range of colors known for the species (thus leaving out genetic color abnormalities like albinos), and is accompanied by all the accoutrements necessary to establish the shell as one of its species as can be expected of a dead remnant (thus requiring the operculum if it had one in life; and full data as that is the indirect evidence of its locale, temporal distribution, habitat, and the establishment of the paper trail necessary for its authentication). Thus an "A" shell is one that has all the characteristics sought by the most avid collectors, and picayunish malacologists. The only real exception is that of the specialty collectors of rostrate, sinistral or freak specimens, who seek out specimens precisely because they do not fall within the expected norm. While such characteristics may add (usually significant) monetary value, their intrinsic shell value is tangential to our purpose. It is thus my hope that specimens graded by this system have inherent and concurrent value (monetary AND instrinsic) for both collectors and scientists, and that use of the system will alleviate problems associated with the previous system.

From the A level, specimens descend a scale of progressive alphabetical designations dependent on those things which generally detract from the value of the shell, but may also be looked at as detracting from the ability to place the shell intrinsically within the species. Among these would be various scars from growth arrest, crabbing, trawling, inclusions, barnacle damage, etc.; breaks of edge material; lack of opercula; missing data points; increasingly malformed or freakish growth patterns, including rostration; etc.

It is not a coincidence that the grading system parallels that of grades in school, or eggs at market, as these are rather universally recognized tools for judging quality. It also removes us from the confusing (abusive) usage of everyday words as technical jargon, and makes it clear that the grading system requires foreknowledge and study for proper use. The use of suffixes designating flaws should make clear both how to grade from the graders standpoint, and what the problems are from the buyers/receivers end.

A = An A specimen is a structurally perfect shell as it is known for that species, and must have complete collection data in order to be listed as such. Complete/full data includes: species name, specific geographic location identifiable to nearest topographic landmark, depth/elevation, collector, habitat, and date including day, month and year (useful though not required are: author and date of publication; pedigree of collections; complete set of data cards to match pedigree). Anything less is not complete and drops the specimen to B category or lower regardless of its condition. Only two exceptions to "perfect" are allowed: for those species in which either a prominent adult growth-arrest line, or a decollated spire/protoconch, are ubiquitous characteristics of the species. Assuming perfection otherwise, those are allowed within the definition of an A shell. Those species which "typically" or "usually" have these characteristics do not fall within this exception (for example, Coeliaxis blandi). Also, the growth-arrest formed varices of various families and species, notably the Muricidae, Coralliophilidae and Ranellidae, are not flaws.

If it is a species that forms an operculum, this must be present in order to be graded an A specimen. [At this point I need to note that, with the foregoing requirements, another aspect of collecting rears up - what to do about the periostracum, since it seems as though it parallels the operculum in its necessity to the "typicality" of the species, and yet is rarely a "kept" portion of certain groups (i.e., kept in the Unionidae; scraped away in the Conidae). For now just let me say that my gut feeling is that it should not be included in the definition as necessary for an A grade, but I can't justify it within the limits of my definition - it figures there has to be an "issue" - comments welcome]

A bivalve must have both matching valves in order to be an A specimen.

Rostration is an abnormality and degrades the shell to a lower category. No rostrate example can be an A shell. The system is based however on structural integrity, and as such a range of color variation, geographically, microclimatically, and topographically typical for the species is allowed, including niger (non-rostrate) specimens. Freak genetic color variations, basically limited to complete albinos and melanos are not allowed within the category for which the shell otherwise qualifies, and drops the shell a category. Sinistral and dextral specimens, opposite the norm for the species, are also freaks and drop the specimen a category.

There are no A+ grades; A is tops, the best it can get. Further, there are no plus or minus grades appended to any of the grades listed here. The realm of possibilities is well covered by the suffixes available.

B = A shell in excellent condition, but having a single flaw; to include: missing data, dulled surface, chipped lips, growth lines, lost opercula, lost protoconchs or spires, small crab or bite marks, minor freakishnesses, abnormally sinistral or dextral, OR a few small sand inclusions. The specimen grade of B always requires a suffix that indicates the flaw (as listed below).

d = Missing complete data but in otherwise perfect condition. To be considered B level shell, the specimen must have basic data including: name, location to a specific geographic entity more specific than state, region or district, and year. Failure to have all basic data relegates the specimen to C status.

s = A slightly or limited dulled surface, less than perfect gloss on surfaces that should have gloss. A completely dulled specimen would drop the shell a category.

o = Without operculum, for those that have them in life. To be an A specimen, an operculum-bearing specimen must include it.

p = Lost/broken protoconch or spire.

g = Growth line that interrupts the flow of shell material. All transverse lines on gastropods and concentric lines on bivalves are growth lines. The ones usually remarked upon are growth arrest lines, where, for injury, climate, or some other reason, the mollusc must make a major effort to restart growth and the re-laying of shell material becomes seriously out-of-whack. Any such major growth lines detract from the shell (despite the common dealer disclaimer of "doesn't detract from beauty" - hogwash, that's likely why they're selling it). Growth lines that completely restart shell material and are bordered by a deep groove knock the shell down another category.

l = Lip minorly chipped, flaked or ill-formed. Lips extensively chipped or broken off would knock the shell down a category.

b = Bite or crab mark, or naturally occurring scar or surface flaw; no more than one.

h = A started hole or dent from gastropod attack. A completed hole drops the shell into the C category.

i = A few (three or less) small sand inclusions, Many, or large, sand inclusions drop the shell into the C category.

r = Rostrate in such a way that the deformity is obvious, but not freakish. Grossly rostrate specimens are C category pieces.

u = Unnaturally sinistral or dextral. A gastropod shell that forms opposite the norm for the species.

c = Color freak: albino, melano, or a color completely outside the range of colors associated with the species.

f = A lightly filed lip; one that merely corrects a chip. Filing along the entire edge of the lip drops the shell into the next category.

v = Missing valve. A bivalve specimen, of only one half, otherwise perfect and with full data.

C = A shell that has any two of the above flaws, or multiples or gross exhibitions of one type of flaw. The C specimen always requires a dual suffix that indicates the flaws (as listed above and/or below).

gg = Major growth flaw.

ll = Lip broken off.

ss = Completely dulled specimen, or one with large or multiple surface flaws, bites or crabs.

dd = An otherwise perfect shell that lacks even basic data. Name and range do not constitute data.

bb = Multiple bite or crab marks.

hh = Drill hole from a gastropod attack.

rr = Grossly rostrate or freak specimens.

ii = Many and/or large and unsightly sand inclusions.

ff = Completely or heavily filed lip.

For example: a specimen classified as Cdr would be rated a C for being rostrate and lacking full data. One labelled Cll is a generally nice specimen with full data but has the lip completely broken off or with major damage. One labelled Coh has full data but was probably recently dead collected based on the lack of operculum and a drill hole.

D = A specimen that has multiple and major flaws. These flaws can be described by using any combination of suffixes above; but only for informational purposes. The D grade of the shell is sufficient to indicate that it has many, obvious and significant flaws. An old shell with much wrong but still solid structurally would be rated here, as would a typical tourist shop Murex with zero data and many broken varices.

E = Beached. A basically complete shell, but highly worn from surf action, and bleached from the sun. Despite a lack of flaws even a shell like this has lost layers of surface material and probably most if not all color, rendering it little more than a documentary piece. They always have value in a collection if accompanied by data, if only for faunal documentation. Few aesthetic collections will be without a few, waiting in the cabinet until replaced by a finer specimen. There is no need to add suffixes here, unless one wishes to do so for informational purposes; a beacher is a beacher. Nevertheless I highly recommend that no complete specimen which has complete data be discarded - museums and research collections are always in need of accurately placed specimens, and at the very least they can be passed on to youngsters who may not only learn from them but will also likely shower the giver with appreciation.

F = Pieces of, or artificially manipulated, shells. Of little to no collection use or value, unless, as pieces, they can be identified and contribute documentation for a locality otherwise unavailable. Some pieces purposefully cut may be of value for educational purposes (cut shells to show structure for instance; what collection is without at least one?), or for crafts, or for jewelry (Paua for example). Others are dyed to enhance color (sometimes done to Abalone [Haliotis sp.] shells). Shells that are painted with scenes (commonly Oysters and Scallops) or carved/etched (Tiger Cowries and Helmets typically) may have curio ("Souvenir of Tahiti") or religious (Lord's Prayer carved/etched on Cowries; but be aware that a few of these may be porcelain reproductions - guess it's cheaper to cast than to carve) or true art (Cameos) value, but no intrinsic shell value per se. Some may have been damaged/ruined in pursuit of food or pearls (think Pearl Oysters, Abalones, Scallops, Conchs) and dumped, where they may be gathered for sale by locals trying to make a buck off tourists. If undamaged they may rate as a C shell, for lack of data. Shells with the usual natural damage may place as a D. Shells with man-made damage, such as the large spire cuts made in conchs, and lacking data, are best placed here. Shells that are lacquered, shellacked, plastic-coated, imbedded in acrylic, glued to poster board or cardboard or anything else (mirrors, car grills and tombs all come to mind as local examples), painted to look new, or painted to look like other species, and shells ground down or polished to reveal inner layers of shell material are all valueless except for demonstration, education, showing off, or their value as art, jewelry, craft or souvenir. In the realm of counterfeiting come three examples that use real shells. First is the practice of taking a common shell, painting it like a rarer species and then glazing it; second, is taking two (or more) broken pieces of a rare species and artificially constructing a "complete" specimen; and third is manufacturing a "new" species by combining pieces of two or more different species. Selling these kind of things would cost someone their reputation, and thus their business. All these variations on the theme of "unnatural" specimens score as F pieces for purposes of the collecting hobby or science, and can carry a suffix designating the reason of the rating.

x = Broken piece: found in that condition, or remnants of an accident, or detritus from some other use of the shell.

j = Cut piece: cut for jewelry, craft, or educational purposes.

a = Art piece: carved, dyed or painted for craft, souvenir, or artistic use.

g = Glued, painted, shellacked, lacquered, polished, imbedded, plasticized, painted, ground, and any other surface coating or embellishment.

c = Counterfeited, fabricated, invented, or anything done to a shell to make it something it's not (except see No Grade below).

e = Edible or commercial piece: damaged in the quest for food, mother of pearl, or pearls.

No Grade = There was once a special craft practiced, largely in the Philippines and the Far East, of baking a starch paste into shell forms, and then painting and glazing them. The purpose was to pass these off as real shells of exceptional value - Conus gloriamaris for example. This craft is gone best we know, but examples still exist of these counterfeits. There are almost certainly some porcelain repros about as well that might fool some collectors. I'll say, from my own viewpoint, that the crafted shells certainly have some historic and educational value now - in fact, counterfeits of C. gloriamaris, are probably more valuable than the real thing these days. Certainly the time and care put into making one was exceptional. Despite all that however, they are not actually shells, and so can't be graded - unstated rule (until now anyway), it has to be real to earn a grade.

It is to be reiterated that many C, D, E specimens may be of significant scientific value, provided they have complete/full data, despite being less desirable for the aesthetic collection. Specimens with data should be donated to a worthy institution, or held with the collection pending a final donation of all specimens.

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