Antique Victorian Operculum Jewelry

When I first encountered operculum jewelry, my reaction was ‘What the heck is that?’ It certainly didn’t resemble anything I’d ever seen before; for one thing, they looked almost eerily like “eyes” of some sort. But were they manmade or natural?

They are indeed natural; in fact, they are part of a special type of snail’s shell. The word operculum (pronounced oh-PER-kew-lum; plural, opercula) is Latin for a lid or cover, and is typically used in reference to the body part of a living creature or plant. In this case it refers to a certain group of freshwater or marine snails. The operculum is located across the opening of the shell, so that when the snail retracts its body inside, this “trapdoor” closes as a protective barrier against predators or to avoid drying out in times of heat and drought. While the snail is alive the operculum is a flexible membrane, but afterwards it hardens and becomes just like a typical calcareous “seashell.” The appearance of opercula can vary (flattish, rounded, etc) depending on the species of snail but the type used in jewelry is shaped like a cabochon: a rounded colorful top and a flat reverse showing a delicate brown spiral pattern on creamy white. Because of their eye-like appearance these are sometimes called “cat’s eye”, “evil eye” or “Shiva’s eye” shells or jewelry.

Operculum jewelry became a huge fad during the Victorian era, with many designs using gold (usually 9kt) or sterling silver mountings. They were used in necklaces, bracelets, brooches, earrings and even cufflinks. Some particularly fine examples are shown below.

 

operculum bracelet in original caseThis lovely gold-and-opercula bracelet in its original case is about 7.5″ long. It weighs 45 grams which is a bit more than 1.5 ounces.

 

 

 Victorian operculum braceletThis 1880s bracelet in 9k gold has graceful scroll-shaped links and a safety chain. It too is about 7.5″ long.

 

 

18k gold antique operculum braceletSurprisingly, this bracelet is 18k gold… something you’d only expect to see in a fine jewelry/gemstone piece! The seven opercula are graduated in size. This must have been made for a somewhat smaller wrist, as it is only 6.8″ long.

 

 

Victorian operculum broochThis Victorian brooch, probably in 9k gold, is about an inch and a half long. Some crazing can be seen in the opercula, especially the lefthand one.

 

 

silver operculum brooch05bSet in sterling silver, this brooch is almost 2″ in diameter.

 two operculum broochesNo information was provided about either of these brooches other than an approximate date of early 19th century. They appear to be set in silver, probably sterling.

 

 

operculum necklace and earrings setHere’s a simple but elegant necklace and earring set in 9k gold. The opercula seem to be subtly graduated in size, to the largest (13th) central shell.

 

 

operculum brooch and earringsThese are also set in 9k gold. Because of the lanyard style of the brooch, the operculum could be detached and used as a pendant on a fine chain.

 

 

 operculum cuff linksThese gold-mounted cufflinks show how the color of opercula can vary; perhaps these were from a slightly different snail species, or from environmental conditions they simply developed more green coloration than brown.

 

 

operculum and turquoise necklaceThis very unusual necklace used matrix turquoise as well as opercula. The “holes” visible on the short end(s) of the turquoise cabochons make me wonder if those were originally beads that were later incorporated into this necklace.

 

 

operculum ringAlthough this gold and operculum ring is very pretty with its floral motif, I would worry a bit about potential damage to the shell if the wearer wasn’t careful. It seems to have survived quite nicely thus far, though!

 

 

operculum necklace and broochThere are 18 opercula in this gold-mounted necklace, and the smaller ones look very well matched in color. The accompanying simple bar brooch is a classic.

 

 

operculum braceletThis collet-set bracelet is just 7″ long. The operculum at the far right is cracked; a reminder that these are shells, after all, and prone to damage.

 

 

Victorian operculum broochSuch a pretty combination of ornamentation and simplicity in this 9k gold bar brooch.

 

 

sterling operculum necklaceThis sadly tarnished sterling necklace is 16″ long. The seller mentioned a hallmark which she could not quite make out. The opercula are graduated in size from 12mm at the clasp end to 18mm at the center. This necklace is a bit unusual in that it doesn’t have the typical hidden clasp

 

 

operculum festoon necklaceAnother graduated opercula (14mm to 23 mm) necklace in silver, this time in a festoon style using 15 shells.

 

 

operculum and sterling necklace from Boylerpf JewelryThis sterling necklace is simple but stylish, and I can attest that it is extremely comfortable to wear. Sixteen inches long, the biggest operculum is about 3/4″ high. Notice that even though the opercula do not extend all the way to the ends, the necklace still has the typical hidden clasp.

Operculum jewelry was by no means confined to the Victorian era; there are other popular styles and examples dating from various decades of the 20th century. Several of these will be the subject of upcoming posts.

  21 comments for “Antique Victorian Operculum Jewelry

  1. April 6, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    These are lovely, definitely something I would wear. Fascinating, have never heard of these shells before. 🙂

  2. April 6, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    How curious. Remarkably like eyes. Not sure I would want to wear them though.

  3. April 6, 2016 at 11:15 pm

    As always…the BEST informative articles ever! Well done…loved seeing all these examples. Your research is impeccable!

  4. April 7, 2016 at 12:20 am

    They are very ahem, “eye catching” that’s for sure. I would love to own a few, but don’t think I’d wear them since they are made of real gold and/ or sterling silver. Very informative article and never knew such unique jewelry like this existed way back when. 🙂

    • April 7, 2016 at 11:57 am

      Yes, they are unusual for sure! There are some styles that do not use any real gold or sterling silver, though; those will be the subject of my next post about operculum jewelry. 🙂

      • April 12, 2016 at 1:41 pm

        Oh, I will definitely have to check back on that post. The jewelry is fascinating though. 🙂

      • Rose Gomez
        October 10, 2021 at 6:17 pm

        Very informative. Thank you. I have a beautiful brooch and Tortoise shell .

    • June 24, 2017 at 12:48 pm

      Hi I am curious why you won’t wear something made of gold or silver?

      • August 9, 2019 at 12:06 pm

        Hi,
        I’m not opposed to wearing either gold nor silver. I seldom wear jewelry anymore due to my hectic work. Thank you for the inquiry.

  5. April 7, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    Fascinating. I’ve never heard of these before!

  6. Carol
    September 1, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    I just bought an operculum bracelet. This article was very helpful.

    • September 1, 2016 at 8:31 pm

      I’m glad to know this was useful, Carol. Enjoy your lovely bracelet! 🙂

  7. Linda Boughton
    April 22, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    I have a number of loose green ‘cat’s eye’ ones given to my mom in the late 1960s by someone she knew, they are from the Fiji Islands where this lady lived, from her beach. I was once told they were very valuable and rare…. When my mom passed awsy they became mine. As far as I know she only gave one away to my brother in law. They are in various sizes. There is a handwritten note from the lady on the box lid that says they are ‘now rare/extinct– and a collector’s item.’

    • September 13, 2021 at 6:32 pm

      Green cat’s eye opercula come from the mollusk Turbo petholatus and they are definitely not extinct.

  8. Peggy Hampton
    June 16, 2018 at 12:18 am

    These are beautiful. Do you know the approximate price of a necklace?

    • June 16, 2018 at 9:25 am

      There’s a pretty wide variation, depending on whether a piece is of the tourist-jewelry type or an antique piece set in sterling, the complexity of the construction, and how many shells are in it. The tourist-quality pieces, including the ones incorporating the faux tortoiseshell (plastic) can be had on eBay or Etsy for less than $100, while the older, sterling-set necklaces typically are often $200 and up.

  9. Angi Hernandez
    February 11, 2019 at 8:03 pm

    How much do these sell for? I’m curious because I have a necklace, bracelet and earring set that was given to me by my grandma. I don’t want to sell them but I’d love to know approximate value.

    • February 12, 2019 at 11:28 am

      It’s hard to say without knowing more about them, such as whether or not the setting is sterling or gold, and, if gold, what the karat weight is. There was also a fair amount of operculum jewelry produced for the tourist trade (those can be seen in my other three operculum-jewelry post). The best quality examples of this jewelry can range from less than $100 to more than $1000. For example, a ten-shell necklace about 16″ long and set in 18k gold sold for the equivalent of about $1800 last year in the UK. So the value range can be quite variable depending on the actual piece/set.

  10. September 13, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    Opercula were never thought of or called “evil eyes”, on the contrary their purpose in Victorian jewelry was to ward off the “evil eye”. I’m surprised this fact isn’t mentioned. Also, “Shiva’s eye” is a very modern, “new age” marketing name, it’s not any kind of traditional common name, has no history of usage and it has no actual link to Shiva or Hinduism.

    • September 13, 2021 at 7:11 pm

      Thanks so much for the clarification! These are great examples of how so-called ‘common names’ of objects (as well as plants!) can sometimes be misleading or downright inaccurate. I do wonder, though, if the phrase ‘evil-eye’ might actually be meant in the way you describe (as protection against same), in the same way as my mom used the term when referring to the blue Greek beads with an eye painted on them. Those, too, were meant to ward off the Evil Eye but she always called them “evil eye beads”. Her first husband was Greek and that’s what his family called those beads as well. Perhaps some sellers use the same shorthand term in the same way, in regard to operculum jewelry, as well. But as you rightly point out, it’s ambiguous. 🙂

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