Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Small White Wednesday

You will often hear me describe things as “one of my favorite" but if I was told to only select “ONE” white shell that is truly my favorite...the one that stands above all of the rest... it would unquestionably be the Precious Wentletrap. A big name for a tiny shell but when you exam it closely you will see the immense beauty in the purity of its form.

The word wentletrap is from the German-Dutch origin and literally means spiral staircase. The Precious Wentletrap is so exquisitely formed that the early 18th century collectors placed it’s value above rubies. Royalty prized these lovely shells and paid prices equal to what it might have been if reproduced in gold and studded with diamonds.

The tapering spiral whorls of this small, dainty shell which reaches not much more than two inches in length and often found under or around an inch in length, are not sutured together as in the case with most spiral univalves. There is a space between them all the way from the nucleus to the aperture and the whole is covered with very regular and ridge-like varices which have the appearance of a white latticework cage enclosing the glossy whorls or the treads of a spiral staircase.


X-ray of Precious Wentletrap showing the space within. Beautiful.

At the height of their popularity these shells would fetch several hundred pounds a piece and reportedly were so in demand that Chinese artisans counterfeited the shells using rice flour. The Emperor Francis I, husband of Maria Theresa, paid 4,000 guilders (truly a king’s ransom) for one. They held pride of place in the cabinets of the Empress Catherine of Russia and the Queen of Sweden. Though no longer considered rare, they are still greatly admired and fine specimens are much coveted as ever, but their prices, thankfully, are a modest fraction of what they once were.

Almost always a pure, alabaster white, they look like the finest bone china.

Wentletraps are usually found on sandy bottoms near sea anemones and corals, their food source. Some species are foragers and search for anemones and it is not uncommon to find these creatures along tide lines.


When disturbed or distressed, these creatures will excrete a purple dye that acts as an anesthesia to the attacking organism. The ancient Greeks utilized this dye in their royal fabrics. It is said that milking 300 wentletraps provided just enough purple dye to provide purple for a small collar. One of the reasons why purple is considered a royal color...they were the only ones who could afford its expensive cost.

Wentletraps inhabit all seas and oceans worldwide, from the tropical zones to the Arctic and Antarctic zones. The Precious Wentletrap is found in the Indo-China region.

5 comments:

Ana said...

I love that I always learn something new when I come to visit. I love the Wentletrap shell...simply beautiful. Thank you so very much for sharing all about this precious shell. Have a wonderful White Wednesday.

Hugs,
♥Ana~A Petite Cottage

the gypsy said...

What a beautiful shell - and it's nice to see a picture of the builder!

Garden Antqs Vintage said...

This is just beautiful. I have shells all over my home because I love them so, but I don't think I've ever seen one as pretty as this!

Kathleen said...

God is the ultimate designer............Kathleen

Sandy and Joe/rhubarb reign said...

Wow -- that's lovely. I've never heard of that type of shell. Thanks for sharing. xo