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 Standard).

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.

Please explain how shell dealers grade shells