By Jennifer Lonoff Schiff
Birthshell™? What the heck is a Birthshell? Is it like a birthstone? And what is my Birthshell? To answer your questions, a Birthshell—the name is trademarked—is the seashell equivalent of a birthstone. And you can find your Birthshell in sterling silver or 14k gold, inlaid with a gemstone, at family-run Congress Jewelers.
A Sea Change
Scot Congress, a third-generation jeweler who runs Congress Jewelers with his wife Melissa, fondly remembers hunting for seashells on Sanibel’s beaches with his parents and grandparents when he was a toddler. His grandparents had retired to nearby Cape Coral in the 1960s, and his parents, Larry and Dee, made the move from the Midwest to Southwest Florida in the early 1980s.
Soon after making the move, Larry, a jeweler like his father, began making jewelry molds of the shells he collected on his beach walks. But not just any shell would do. Larry was extremely picky. The shells he used for his molds had to be just the right shape and size with good detail so that he could craft true-to-life shell jewelry.
Without the necessary capital to open a jewelry store right away, Larry began selling his shell jewelry out of the bike and boat concession he ran at the Casa Ybel Resort. The jewelry was a hit (you might say it was a shell-sation). And soon guests weren’t coming to him to rent a bike or a sailboat but to buy his unique shell jewelry.
As a result, in 1985, Larry decided to sell the bike and boat concession and use the proceeds to open Congress Jewelers. What had begun as a hobby with a few shell molds quickly grew to 50 shell molds then to over 1,000 by 1993. But the Congresses didn’t stop there.
A Shell of a Good Idea
Scot Congress, who graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in business and marketing in 1984, joined his father at the jewelry store when it opened. While his parents focused on the creative side of the business, Scot focused on the business side. Four years later, Scot’s new wife Melissa, an expert in product and inventory management, joined. And they began thinking up new ways to expand the Sealife by Congress collection.
Among the various ideas they kicked around was combining seashells and gemstones. The idea was inspired by Scot’s mother Dee. She had gotten cancer in her 30’s and, as a result, treasured each birthday, planning celebrations sometimes a year in advance. Dee also loved collecting seashells. So after she passed (at the age of 65), Scot honored her memory by creating the Birthshells collection, using Dee’s favorite shell, the lettered olive, as the Birthshell for March, her birth month.
As for what shells to use for the eleven other months of the year, Scot and Melissa used their and their family’s favorites. As Scot was a Leo, born in July, and his favorite shell was the lion’s paw, the lion’s paw became the Birthshell for July. As for December, that just had to be the jingle shell, which also happened to be the month Scot and Melissa’s son Andrew was born.
Scot and Melissa also came up with the idea of accompanying each gold and silver Birthshell with a kind of shell horoscope or shelloscope. The shelloscope would be printed on a small, four-color card that would show a picture of the Birthshell on one side and a description of those born under that shell sign on the other.
The Birthshell collection, which is crafted by artisans in Congress Jewelers’ Sanibel workshop, began with pendants in sterling silver and 14k gold. But it quickly expanded to rings and then charms for charm bracelets. As for which Birthshell is the most popular, Scot and Melissa say the twelve months are pretty equal. Though June, whose Birthshell is a conch set with a pearl, may have a slight edge.
Scot and Melissa say most of their Birthshell customers are seashell and/or Sanibel lovers, buying the jewelry for themselves as a way to celebrate their birthday or as a souvenir of their time on Sanibel. Though plenty of people also buy them as gifts for friends or family members. Melissa wears a beautiful gold and diamond charm bracelet with each of her four children’s Birthshells on it. And she says many mothers and grandmothers have jumped on the trend, ordering bracelets with their children and/or grandchildren’s Birthshells.
And while most people who come to buy Birthshells are happy with the featured shell, Congress does occasionally get requests from customers to change their Birthshell, which they will do—one advantage of making the jewelry in-house.
So next time you are thinking of giving yourself or a fellow beachcomber a truly personalized gift, consider giving them their Birthshell.
Learn more at www.CongressJewelers.com. Photos courtesy of Congress Jewelers. Birthshells chart by Beachcombing magazine. Birthshell is a trademark of Congress Jewelers.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.
I have always loved shells.. and knew my birthstone was a shell.. although birthstone is a pearl..yes! June.. now I know why I am so drawn to conchs! Thank you!!!