Top 10 Rarest Seashells

Finding a beautiful seashell on the beach can be a fantastic reminder of a vacation, but did you know that the rarest seashells can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars?

We’re going to look at some of the rarest shell species in the world.

Once we’re done, you’ll know which shells to keep an extra careful eye out for on the shore.

The 10 Rarest Seashells In The World

Top 10 Rarest Seashells

A seashell is the exoskeleton of certain invertebrates. Seashells are made from calcium carbonate, and you can find them washed up on beaches when the animal has died.

There are seashells from horseshoe crabs, brachiopods, and barnacles. However, the most common you’ll see come from marine mollusks.

It’s tricky to compile a list of the rarest seashells in the world as over 100,000 shell-dwelling mollusks live on earth today. What is a rare shell in one part of the world may be more common elsewhere.

We will look at what is generally considered the rarest and the most collectible types of seashells and, accordingly, the most valuable.

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1. Glory of the Sea Cone Shells – Conus gloriamaris

For almost two centuries, the undisputed top of any list of valuable rare seashells would be the conus gloriamaris slender cone shell. 

More specimens became available when the natural habitat of the slender cone shell was discovered by scuba divers in the Pacific and Indian Oceans in 1969. But before this date, seashell collectors regarded it as the rarest and most expensive seashell.

Glory of the Sea Cone Shells
Photo credits: Commons Wikimedia

Even today, the Glory of the Sea Cone, conus gloriamaris, is highly prized and considered one of the best of the very rare seashells.

The conus gloriamaris seashell can measure as much as 16 centimeters / 6.3 inches long.

The slender sea cone shell has delicate orange-brown markings with two or three distinct dark bands on a cream-gold background. When looked at closely, you can see intricate and beautiful hieroglyphic-like details. 

Many stories exist to demonstrate the status of the conus gloriamaris seashell as the rarest and most valuable. In the 18th century, an excellent specimen sold for three times the value that the now priceless Woman in Blue Reading a Letter painting by Johannes Vermeer made in the same year.

When these rare cone shells were only found in museums or the private collection of the exceptionally wealthy, the conus gloriamaris seashell was worth many thousands of dollars.

One collector is said to have purchased a rare specimen at auction in 1792, only to destroy it to increase his collection’s value further.

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2. Junonia Shell – Scaphella junonia

The Junonia snails shell is a stunning ivory-colored seashell with spiral rows of brown spots.

Named after the Roman goddess Juno, this sea snail is found in coastal waters ranging between 29 and 126 meters / 95 and 413 feet deep in the Western Atlantic. 

Its deepwater habitat makes the Junonia shell a rare find, and most specimens that appear these days are found by commercial trawlers.

Junonia Shell

The Junonia shell can occasionally be found washed up on beaches in Florida, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico, and these specimens are highly prized.

The Sanibel Island area is particularly well known for rare shell discoveries. They remain sufficiently uncommon that the lucky shell scavenger may still appear in the local newspapers.

3. Lion’s Paw Scallop Shell – Nodipecten nodosus

The lion’s paw shell comes from a bivalve mollusk species and can be found on the Atlantic coast of North, Central, and South America.

With bright colors, distinctive features, and large size, lion’s paw shells are prized by shell collectors. The lion’s paw scallop shell is usually between 6.4 – 15.2 centimeters / 2.5-6 inches long.

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The shell is predominantly bright orange or red in color and features broad ridges and a knobby surface that is said to resemble the paw of a lion.

Lion’s Paw Scallop Shell

The lion’s paw scallop lives on rocks and prefers shaded areas or caves at between 9-49 meters / 30-160 feet deep.

These shells are rarely washed up, so collectors must rely on specimens caught by commercial fishing. In some areas, including Brazil, overfishing has resulted in the lion’s paw scallop becoming increasingly rare and facing extinction.

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4. The Scotch Bonnet Shell – Semicassis granulata

The scotch bonnet seashell comes from a medium to large-sized snail species found in the subtropical and tropical Western Atlantic Ocean.

This rare seashell has been named after the traditional Scottish bonnet, a traditional tartan hat which it is supposed to resemble. The shell has a short spire and horizontal grooves that run the entire length.

Scotch Bonnet Shell
(Photo Credits: H. Zell, Creative Commons)

The scotch bonnet grows between 5 and 10 centimeters/ 2 and 4 inches long. The irony-colored shell features beautiful yellow-brown markings that can form a spiral when viewed from the shell’s point.

Although they may not be the absolute rarest seashell, they are still worthy of inclusion and are a firm favourite to wear as jewelry.

Accidental harvesting by trawlers and over-collecting has increased the rarity in recent years, and populations are now considered threatened in many areas.

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5. Murex Shells – Muricidae

Although all murex snails aren’t especially rare, many of the species’ shells are so delicate that finding completely intact full-sized shells is uncommon.

One of the most strange and rare shells has to be the fragile venus comb murex shell (Murex pecten).

This giant predatory sea snail has over one hundred delicate spines on its surface, which stop the snail from sinking in soft mud and provide protection from predators.

Murex Shells

The venus comb murex shell reaches 10-15 centimeters / 4-6 inches long and is generally ivory or cream in color. A fully intact specimen is both rare and valuable.

The miyoko murex seashell (Chicoreus miyokoae) is another exquisite and fragile murex shell found in the Philippines.

It is a relatively small shell and only gets to about 4.5-7.8 centimeters / 1.7-3 inches long. The rare white shell of the miyoko murexis is covered in beautiful but delicate frills that easily break away, so an utterly intact shell can be quite valuable.

6. Cowrie Shells – Cypraeidae

When considering the most beautiful seashells, we must include cowrie shells. Cowries are marine gastropods from the family Cypraeidae, and there are over 200 species living today. 

Cowries have been considered so beautiful and rare during human history that they were used as shell money in ancient Egypt, China, the Maldive Islands, Sri Lanka, Borneo, and parts of the African coast.

Cowrie shells were also used in sacred rituals in North America, Brazil, Africa, and India. In Fiji, rare cowrie shells were worn by tribal chiefs as jewelry to demonstrate their rank. 

Cowrie Shells

Cowrie shells are egg-shaped and are smooth with a porcelain-line shine. They come in beautiful types ranging from just 15 millimeters / 0.5 inches to over 20 centimeters / 7.8 inches for the Atlantic deer cowrie, Macrocypraea cervus.

Many cowries have stunning patterns and colors, making them highly desirable to modern collectors. Indeed, it is said that the most expensive cowrie ever privately sold made more than $50,000.

The hundred-eyed cowrie shell (Cypraea argus) is known as one of the rarest and most beautiful types of seashell in the world. This relatively large cowrie shell can reach 11.5 centimeters / 4.5 inches and has a light to medium tan background covered in many brown rings.

The number and size of the rings vary dramatically on each hundred-eyed cowrie shell, and collectors prize especially uncommon combinations that are said to be like works of art.

The white-toothed cowry (Cypraea leucodon) is another rare cowrie shell, and until the end of the 1960s, only two known examples existed worldwide. While they are now more common, these cowrie shells still regularly sell for thousands of dollars.

7. Nautilus Shell – Nautilidae

Nautiluses are incredible swimming marine mollusks from the cephalopod family. The subclass Nautilidae contains six species, all of which have stunning and rare shells.

The name nautilus comes from a Greek word meaning sailor, which is appropriate given how these animals move impressively in the water.

The nautilus shell contains many sealed chambers, increasing in number as the animal grows. As each chamber seals, it is partially filled with gas, giving the animal its buoyancy.

Nautilus Shell

The chambers make a stunning spiral shape as the animal gets bigger, and the pattern is widely used in art and design.

Externally the shell is white with brown tiger-like stripes, while inside, the nautilus shell has a stunning pearlescent finish.

The rarity of nautilus shells is partly because they are usually found in very deep waters. In fact, the deepest ever nautilus was sighted at 703 meters / 2,306 feet.

However, nautiluses can be found in shallow cooler waters when they feed in some locations.

Nautilus shells are a firm favorite amongst keen seashell collectors. However, we should note that the species is highly threatened and is protected under the CITES Appendix II treaty, which regulates international trade and makes their export or import illegal without a permit.

8. Queen Conch Shell – Aliger gigas

The queen conch shell has a history of being one of the most beautiful shells of all, and it was regarded as a valuable and decorative asset in 17th century Europe. Shells were used to make jewelry and decorative features in stately homes, including fireplace surrounds and lampstands.

Nowadays, the queen conch shell is becoming rarer on beaches as the species has become threatened.

Queen Conch Shell

Commercial export is restricted by the CITES agreement to try and preserve stocks, increasing the value of high-quality specimens already in a collector’s country.

Fully grown queen conch shells can reach between 15-31 centimeters / 5.9-12.2 inches. Completely intact adult shells are the most valuable and are relatively rare.

The large frilled lip is easily damaged, as are the knobbly spines. Any knocks or cracks can significantly reduce a previously perfect specimen’s value.

9. Wentletrap Shells – Epitoniidae

Wentletrap shells are rare white shells with an unusual external spiral form that makes them highly collectible.

The wentletraps are small sea snails that get their name from the Dutch word for spiral staircase. Thanks to their unconventional appearance, they are also sometimes called ladder shells or staircase shells.

Wentletrap Shells

Finding completely intact wentletrap shells washed up on a beach is unusual as the spirals are easily broken off.

Special care also needs to be taken when cleaning sand from these rare shells not to damage the valuable structure.

10. Eocypraeidae – Sphaerocypraea incomparabilis

Our final shell can likely take the crown as the rarest seashell in the world and one of the most valuable.

The Eocypraeidae is a family of giant sea snails thought extinct and were only known to scientists as fossilized remains.

In 1963 a Soviet trawler found a fresh shell in its dredge in the Gulf of Aden. This was identified as being a modern specimen of one of two living Eocypraeidae species.

Sphaerocypraea incomparabilis

Soviet scientists hid the existence of the shell until 1990. In that year, they showed the dark-colored shell to the world, bringing back to life a creature thought to have been extinct for 20 million years.

The sphaerocypraea incomparabilis can genuinely be called one of the very rarest seashells as only six specimens are known of, mainly in museum collections.

So rare is this shell that it has even had a part in tales of international theft and smuggling. The American Museum of Natural History in New York discovered that one of its two specimens had been stolen by a professional shell dealer who had been assessing the museum’s collection.

The stolen shell was traced and found to have been sold in Belgium to a collector for $12,000 and then resold in Indonesia for $20,000.

Rarest Seashells FAQs

With over 100,000 sea mollusks known to science, the rarest seashell is, in reality, probably the next one that is discovered. However, for now, here are some frequently asked rarest seashell questions.

What Is the Rarest Seashell in the World?

The rarest shells found in the world are the Sphaerocypraea incomparabilis. There are only six known specimens, and it was only described by scientists in 1993.

What Is the Rarest Shell Species in Florida?

The rarest seashell in Florida is the pretty Junonia snails shell. Collectors price this ivory-colored seashell with its stunning brown spot patterns. 

What Is the World’s Most Expensive Seashell?

The most expensive seashell ever was a Conus gloriamaris, the glory of the sea cone shell sold in the 18th century for the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars today.

The most expensive modern seashell was a prized cowrie that the National Museum of Natural History curator, Chris Meyer, said sold privately for over $50,000.

What Is the Biggest Seashell Ever Found?

The biggest seashells are from giant clams, Tridacna gigas. These shells can grow to over one meter / 3.2 feet across and weigh more than 200 kilograms / 440 pounds.

Where Is the Best Beach To Find Rare Shells?

You can find seashells on beaches all around the world. Some of the most famous beaches for finding many shells are as follows:

  • Sanibel Island – Florida, USA
  • Bandon Beach – Oregon, USA
  • Barricane Beach – Devon, England
  • Galveston Island – Texas, USA
  • Shell Beach – Shark Bay, Western Australia
  • Cumberland Island – Georgia, USA
  • Jeffreys Bay – South Africa
  • Calvert Cliffs State Park – Maryland, USA
  • Shipwreck Beach – Lanai, Hawaii
  • Agios Dimitrios – Greece
  • Shell Beach – Saint Barthelemy
  • Eleuthera Island – Bahamas

What Is the Oldest Seashell in the World?

The oldest known seashell in the world is believed to be a 17,000-year-old conch shell found in the Pyrenees in southern France in 1931. The shell had been used as a horn by ancient hunter-gatherers.

Conclusion

As we’ve taken a look at the rarest seashells, we’ve seen some shells that are beautiful, delicate, and even so rare that they’re worth many thousands of dollars.

Next time you’re on the beach, pay careful attention. You never know what rare shells might be washed up.

British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.

Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.

When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.

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