Where did these shell-grading
standards come from?
by Richard Goldberg
The shell grading that you see
on dealer's price lists grew out of a need to have a standardized
method for grading shells that everyone world wide could adopt
when buying, selling or exchanging shells.
In 1973 Elmer Leehman and Stu
Lillico, members of the Hawaiian Malacological Society, proposed
a system by which the condition of shells would be described
using a standard method and uniform terms. They based their
system on long discussions held during the previous two years
and published their proposed standards in the March 1973 issue
of Hawaiian Shell News. Although some dealers and serious collectors
soon began to use it, the proposed system was not universally
adopted right away. It eventually came to be called the HMS-ISGS
(Hawaiian Malacological Society International Shell Grading
The original version of the ISGS
system, as proposed by Leehman and Lillico, classified a shell
in four categories:
Gem Quality - A perfect
live-taken adult specimen, without growth flaws and with a perfect
spire, full size and richly colored. Cones should have a perfect
lip. The specimen should be well-cleaned inside and out, with
no broken spines. Operculum required with species having one.
Glossy cowries should have a fine gloss and deep coloring. Bivalves
must have both valves properly matched and unbroken. Complete
collecting data -- species name, location, depth of water and
type of bottom, or other pertinent information -- are provided
with gem-quality shells.
Fine Quality - A live-collected
adult shell with only minor faults and not more than one minor
growth flaw. Color and gloss must be satisfactory. Operculum
not mandatory if the specimen is otherwise excellent. A cone
shell may have a rough lip or one small chip. The spire must
be unblemished. A murex may have not more than two minor frond
breaks. No repairs -- filed lips or mended knobs -- permitted.
Full data required.
Good Quality - A reasonably
good specimen, not necessarily live taken. A few defects, including
growth marks or no operculum, acceptable. Color should be good,
with only minor fading. Specimen may be subadult, but not less
than 80% of average size. The nature and degree of any repairs
should be stated. Basic data (species name and locale) required.
Fair Quality - May be
dead or beach collected. Cone lips may be chipped and color
somewhat faded. Growth faults and imperfect spires are acceptable.
No data or operculum required. (This classification is comparable
to the present "commercial quality" classification.
It is the bottom grade.)
A note was added on "Giant Shells": Use of the word
"giant" to describe the size of a shell should be
reserved for specimens that are at least 25% larger than the
size listed in the most recent edition of Van Nostrand's Standard
Catalog of Shells. Pending inclusion in that book, the holotype
size data are applicable.
In May 1977, former Florida shell
dealer Bob Morrison proposed modifications to the Leehman &
Lillico proposed shell standards in Hawaiian Shell News. His
contention was that a perfect shell means different things to
different people. His revision shortened the description of
a Gem shell to say, "a mature shell with no noticeable
flaws." "Fine" became a shell with a minor flaw
or flaws which do not detract significantly from the appearance;
shell may be slightly subadult...and so on.
Morrison was the first to propose
using a plus (+) sign after the grading to indicate a shell
that is better than that grading, but not quite the next grade.
He also stated that due to certain environmental influences,
certain species almost always show some noticeable flaws. He
proposed that such flaws should be noted as "typical."
Both the original proposal by Leehman and Lillico and Morrison's
proposal stated that a written description of the good and bad
qualities of a shell should accompany the listing.
By September 1977 Leehman and
Lillico wrote in HSN that the HMS-ISGS was a success (I presume
based on the number of dealers and collectors who adopted the
standard). During that four year evolutionary period the standards
had been yet again revised, and they were finally published
as official in this issue. The new guidelines included adding
plus (+) and minus (-) signs to the basic grading designation.
(I do not think many people use the minus sign after a grade
designation anymore). Also a commercial grade was added to indicate
shells not acceptable for mail order retailing which should
not be offered as collectors' specimens. Other symbols such
as w/o (with operculum), F/D & B/D (full and basic data),
JUV (juvenile for shells graded Good & Fine) were also adopted.
Even today there is some variation
on this system. The unofficial use of a (++) after the basic
quality grading takes into account an even finer delineation
between gradings. I have even seen a (+++) used. But I think
the line has to be drawn somewhere since the bottom line is
that even with a standard to follow, grading shells is still
a very subjective pursuit.
All mail order shell dealers
that I know of use this standard. As you become a seasoned mail
order buyer, you quickly learn how dealers use this standard
to grade their shells. I do not think Leehman and Lillico of
the HMS-ISGS intended their system to be an end-all, but simply
guidelines to follow in order to simplify communication between
dealers and their customers. That is how they are used today.