No, not fossils! These shells are cut from thin sheets of coloured marble from Maltese quarries, and built into this decorative 19th century table top by Florentine craftsmen – the pieces being put together like a jig-saw. This type of decorative work is called pietre dure (literally ‘hard stones’). The main advantage of using stone, apart from its durability, is that the colours do not fade and always remain as bright as when the object was originally made.
It is a very difficult and expensive process. The stone is cut using a bow saw strung with iron wire that is dipped in abrasive paste with each saw stroke. The pietre dure technique was first developed back in the European Renaissance when people became re-acquainted with and inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman mosaics (those pictures being made up of small stone or ceramic square pieces or tesserae).
The table with the seashell decoration shown in these photographs was made in 1841 by J. Darmanin and Sons who would have purchased the top from Italian craftsmen based in Malta and placed it on the mahogany base. It is on display in the furniture gallery at the V&A Museum in London.
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