Sometimes your curiosity takes you to new and exciting places. And, just sometimes, they turn out to be around the corner from your house – specifically, the sports hall of the Belgian town of Edegem, near Antwerp.
While browsing the internet, I somehow stumbled upon the website of the Royal Belgian Association of Conchology – the latter is the fancy word for the study of mollusc shells. They’ve been organising a shell convention in various locations around Antwerp every year since 1991. The Shell Show allows enthusiasts to not only “discover incredible shells, but also facilitate running into shell friends in the comfortable setting of the event”, the announcement on their website read.
Running into shell friends on a Sunday afternoon just felt right, so two weeks later, I found myself in Edegem with my analogue camera. The entrance was hard to find, but following people with shells printed on their clothing proved helpful. Once inside, the exhibition laid out over an impressive 400-metre stretch of tables, covered by a gigantic assortment of shells put on sale by collectors from all over the world.
The hobby of shell collecting has been practised all over the world since the beginning of time, as archeologists have found thanks to Stone Age shell necklaces. Shells are in fact the external skeleton of molluscs; invertebrate animals that mostly live in the sea that have no bones and make their own little protective home out of special proteins. Once they die, they leave them behind for other animals to use as tools – or for humans to pick up and put behind a window.
One of these displays was right before my eyes at the entrance of the hall. Each of the dozen shells displayed in it was carefully numbered.
I quickly met Eddy Wilmet, an expert in Muricidae shells made by a type of predatory sea snail. During the week, he works as a detective on the biggest murder cases in Belgium. “A stressful job,” he says, “so I need to also spend time on my collection. Recently, he even travelled all the way to Denmark only to pick up one shell. Eddy handed me an Ocinebrellus inornatus, made by a predatory snail, as a keepsake. He’d found it in Zealand, in the northeastern part of the country.
“This place is like a massive candy store,” said the next seller as I examined yet more colourful shells by hand. “These didn’t come from the water, they grew on trees in the jungle,” he added.
A little further down, someone was brushing shells with baby oil. “This helps prevent the shells from drying out,” she explained. “Baby oil is allowed, because it washes off.” I asked how she became enamoured with shells. “By looking at the beautiful shapes and colours,” she answered. “The urge to collect has grown over the years.”
Many of the shell fans present are involved in scientific research. Others just showed up because they like looking at beautiful things. Some members of the conchology association have become so knowledgeable that they frequently discover new types of shells, so several shells are actually named after them.
David and Kevin Monsecour, who call themselves the “Shell Brothers”, stood behind their table of discounted merchandise – “five shells for €1”. The brothers were happy with this year’s turnout. They said only members and their friends used to come to the fair, but this year they were excited to see that the event is drawing a new and younger crowd.
Each visitor was invited to vote on their favourite shell. I chose number four, almost the smallest one out of the bunch, after someone told me that less than 50 of these particular shells have been found all over the world.
Later in the afternoon, an award for most beautiful shell was handed out to the Royal Belgian Association of Conchology chairman David Monsecour and his very rare Morum (Oniscidia) veleroae. The audience award went to Ronald Bienfet and his Tridacna.
As for my shell friend-finding mission? At the end of the day, I’d say I was pretty successful.