by Maddy Zollo Rusbosin | May 6, 2021

How Christa Wilm Built a Seashell Empire

A rainy day project blossoms into a bespoke business venture

Wilm’s work climbs the towering fireplace at The Gasparilla Inn Beach Club. Photography by Carmel Brantley.

Every Floridian understands just how unfortunate it is when a friend comes to visit the so-called “Sunshine State” and it pours for the entirety of their stay. When this very thing happened to Christa Wilm, she had no idea that her rainy weekend stuck inside would become the catalyst for a future business venture. With beach walks and al fresco lunches off the table, she and her friend turned to a crafting project. 

“My then-partner said he’d cut us some mirrors, and that we should head to a seashell shop to keep ourselves busy,” Wilm recalls. After a trip to Shell World, a local souvenir shop, Wilm came home with a basket of seashells she fashioned into a charming homemade mirror that immediately caught the attention of customers at her store on Antique Row in Palm Beach. 

Before long, Wilm began to visit auctions and collect decorative boxes, small chests, sconces and busts to adorn with shells and display in her shop. “I also had a friend who sent me Cuban cigar boxes to encrust,” she says. Her innate sense of creativity paired with her collector’s nature—as a child, she was always outside hunting for nests, feathers, bones and rocks to bring home—turned her hobby into a full-blown passion project that would eventually blossom into Christa’s South Seashells. 

While Wilm has been a resident of Palm Beach for nearly 40 years, the Colorado native had an eclectic journey before settling down in Florida. After attending the University of Missouri’s journalism school, she packed her bags and headed to Washington, D.C., to work as a press secretary and TV producer during the Reagan years. Post-capital, she moved to Boston, where she took graduate classes at Harvard in archaeology and English and Italian Literature; she also spent a lot of time traveling abroad in Germany and Italy. 

I desperately love bespoke, crusty shells that look like they have a provenance and a story to tell.
— Christa Wilm

Looking back, her time overseas planted a seed for her appreciation of shell art: “I just fell in love with the Italian grottoes, and in Munich, there were these beautiful pergolas in the heart of town with fountains in them made of river shells,” she says. 

Once Wilm began creating shell art of her own, she used these intricate structures for inspiration.

“The first time I realized I could turn this into a real business was when an editor from Architectural Digest came into my antique shop and suggested I create a brochure and website displaying my work and advertise with them,” Wilm says. Not long after her ads began running, her phone wouldn’t stop ringing. “It really set me on the map,” she continues.  

As time passed, and her reputation grew, her adorned mirrors and other giftable treasures evolved into more complex, grandiose pieces like chandeliers, fireplaces, candelabras and wall sculptures, leading her to phase out the antiques side of her business entirely after 23 years in 2008. These large-scale projects meant she couldn’t rely just on local beach shops or her own shelling excursions anymore, so she began to work with some of the top shell purveyors in the world. She also started incorporating other natural objects like coral and stone that she acquired from the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in Arizona.

From a 25-foot-high fireplace in the Gasparilla Inn & Club to column and decorative crown installations in Miami Beach’s Faena Hotel to wall paneling for the Bellagio’s Mayfair Supper Club in Las Vegas, Wilm’s work graces the interiors of some of the nation’s most luxurious properties, in both the commercial and private sectors. 

In an Art Deco-inspired restaurant, there is a large chandelier, teal arched windows, salmon trim, and teal seating. The walls around the arched windows are covered in Wilm's shelled panels.
Wilm's work adorns the walls of the Mayfair Supper Club at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Photography courtesy of Christa Wilm.

“One of my favorite projects was inside one of the mansions on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. The owner wanted to build a grotto with a secret spa for his granddaughter. He had such vision, and it truly was a magnificent project,” she says. 

“I feel like people are always trying to stump me with wild ideas or requests. However, the thing I’m still waiting to create is a kinetic shell sculpture, so one that moves.” 

While some custom commissions require hundreds of thousands of shells, other projects, like bespoke evening bags at Ralph Lauren’s Paris show in 2011 or her ready-to-wear jewelry collection, require Wilm’s keen eye and discretion in selecting the very best materials. It’s these delicate pieces where she showcases her most extraordinary shells (the ones she deems too show-stopping to be lost in a larger installation), along with precious and semi-precious gemstones.   

“I’m a collector at heart, so I’ve always sought out the most marvelous shells along with stones, fossils and dendrites for my works,” Wilm explains. “I desperately love bespoke, crusty shells that look like they have a provenance and a story to tell.” Her preference for oddities, like scraggly corals “with movement” or poca corals that look like rose petals, has Wilm always on the hunt. While she’s importing things from all over the world, like meteorites from Germany and Russia, ammonites from Morocco and crystals from South America, Wilm is still known to grab a bucket and go shelling at her local beach. After all, as the saying goes in the antique world, it’s all about the thrill of the find.

Four Must-Haves From Christa's South Seashells

Coral-skirted Exotic Conus Vermeil Earrings 

Olive-colored conus shells accented with coral pieces make for a statement accessory. $695

Mushroom Coral & Shell Brooch

A garnet gemstone draws the eye to the center of this red scallop shell.

Vermeil Charm Bracelet 

A delicate mixture of ancient Roman glass, gold-edged shells and pearls

Neutral Landscape Agate Onyx Earrings

Calico shells coupled with black and tan agate drops

Product photography by Birgit Singh