Sea Urchin Shell Ornaments, Tree Toppers and Earrings

Each ornament I make is unique. Mother Nature creates the exquisite sea urchin shells incorporated into the ornaments. The shells are made up of five plates. The patterns at the margins of the plates are like fine stitchery and the surface decoration is amazing. I complement the shell colors with a turned "icicle" and top finial, using hardwoods such as purpleheart, desert ironwood, ipe, padauk, walnut, and ebonized holly. A sterling silver chain hanger loop completes the ormnament.

The "sputnik" varieties (Phyllacanthus sp.) grow in the Pacific. While alive, long, thick spines extend from the shell, making it reminiscent of the first orbiting Russian space satellite, "Sputnik." The shells I use have just a nub from each spine base. These shells are very thick and robust. The shells range from 2 to 3 inches in diameter. The overall ornament is 6.5 to 8.5 inches long. Tree toppers with sputnik sea urchin shells are 8 to 10 inches tall with a 0.5 inch hole that fits on the top of the tree.

Purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) are commonly harvested on the Pacific Coast of North America and elsewhere for their gonads, considered a delicacy in Japan and elsewhere. The thin and fragile empty shells are collected, cleaned and packaged for sale. Colors range from an almost royal purple to white, with many shells having wonderful pentamerous patterns of color. The shells range from 1.75 to 2.5 inches in diameter. The overall ornament is 6.5 to 8 inches long.

The green sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensisis) is one of the most widely distributed of all Echinoderms. It has a circumpolar distribution that extends into the Arctic regions of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The shells are relatively robust and tend to be uniform in color and pattern. Occasionally, one will have darker patterns within the green field. The undersides of some are creamy colored. I invert some of the green shells, giving the ornament a different appearance. The shells range from 1.75 to 2.5 inches in diameter. The overall ornament is 6.5 to 7.5 inches long.

Pink sea urchins (Allocentrotus fragilis) are the smallest I use. The color of the shell ranges from just a tinge of pink in cream to almost brilliant reddish orange. The oval pink shells range from 1.5 to 2.3 inches in the long dimension. I make a “double-pink” line of ornaments from two shells fitted bottom to bottom. The natural curvature of the two small shells fit together and results in an ornament about 6.5 to 7.5 inches tall.

Bob Rosand of Pennsylvania published articles in American Woodturner on ornaments (Fall 2007) and tree toppers (Fall 2005) that got me started. In the Fall 2009 issue, I published an article on construction techniques that make the shells in finished ornaments less fragile. Some may still split along the naturally thin and weak lines at the plate boundaries. If that happens, I'll replace the shell.

I have recently begun making mini-ornaments and earrings from sputnik sea urchin shells that are about one inch in diameter. Earrings come with a sterling silver ear wire and small hardwood finial.