Ocean Notions

The obsession begins when you're a little kid strolling along the beach. Suddenly you stop dead in your tracks. Peeking out of the sand is a stunning shell, former home to a slimy mollusk, now a piece of calcified art, unique as a fingerprint, tinted in a rainbow of pastel colors, swirled with a strange landscape of ridges and crevices. You grab it for a closer look, then realize you can't put it back. You must keep it, and you must have more. That's how it happened for Elizabeth Brown, a member of the Greater Miami Shell Club since 1995. "They come in so many different shapes, colors, and textures," Brown notes about her passion, "but it always starts with one grungy little shell you find as a child."

This weekend South Florida shell enthusiasts will relive the thrill of that first find at the club's 38th annual show, the theme of which is "Shelling -- Looking Forward and Looking Back." On the agenda: some 35 exhibits, both artistic and scientific, featuring specimens from all over the world. To commemorate the millennium, organizers are resurrecting a few exhibits left over from events in the Seventies. Brown, the show's chairperson, estimates that collectors will display 2500 shells, no two exactly alike.

Admission is free, but shell lovers will still have a chance to, well, shell out some cash. Prominent dealers from Hawaii, California, and Florida will be peddling their wares, which can cost as much as $1000. As with other collectibles, the value of shells depends on scarcity and condition. But if you're not a hard-core collector with big bucks, you can take home a 25-cent bauble that just catches your fancy.

The show is a commercial marketplace, but above all else, it's an educational forum. Some of the scientific exhibits are carefully researched scholarly works about the biology and origins of the shells. Brown herself will exhibit a collection that took her two years to assemble: 62 pen shells (named for their cylindrical shape) that come from far-flung beaches in Panama, Brazil, and the Mediterranean, among other places.

A slew of awards as varied as the shells themselves will go to the show's best exhibits. Highly anticipated is the millennium trophy, given to the most attractive shell. What might this beautiful bivalve, this gorgeous gastropod look like? "It will probably be unusually shaped," Brown speculates. "It's something that makes you want to pick it up, that makes you want to roll it over in your hand.... If it's interesting, that's the most beautiful kind of shell."