Business: Nick Nickerson Finds His Niche With Custom-designed Scallop Shell Ornaments

By: Debra Lawless

Nick Nickerson and his ornamental sea scallop shells, which have taken off since being introduced earlier this year. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTOS

Nick Nickerson, owner of Chatham Coastal Creations, has a problem that most business owners would probably envy: His new line of handcrafted ornamental sea scallop shells has taken off to the point that he can barely keep up with orders.

“If I was 40 years old again I’d be in this head-over-heels,” he says.

This morning Nickerson, 70, is standing out in his new 14-by-24-foot barn where tools hang along a wall and orders are put up in neat blue and white plastic bins on shelves in the back. He says he already needs a building twice as big.

Nickerson was born Willard H. Nickerson III. For many years he worked as a commercial fisherman. About 10 years ago, when he was treated for throat cancer, he had to take it easy. He decided he and his granddaughters Jenna and Callie would make a wreath out of white shells as a gift for their grandmother.

“I was just trying to keep busy,” he says. That launched Chatham Coastal Creations.

In the years since, Nickerson has sold shell wreaths, mirrors, shadow boxes, napkin rings, picture frames, swags, nightlights and necklaces. He uses mussel, bay and sea scallop shells. Slowly but surely he placed his creations in the high-end Cape Cod gift shops catering mainly to the tourist trade.

But all that was before this business with the ornamental sea scallop shells, a new line that Nickerson launched in May.

“It’s the sort of thing that’s taken off by itself,” he says. “People like anything local, made on Cape Cod. And it’s a natural thing.” He recently took out a copyright on his creation. The ornamental sea scallop shells are sold in over 50 stores Capewide, including grocery stores and a vacuum store. Through Agway of Cape Cod he sells dog and cat ornaments, and now the store is asking for one featuring a German shepherd. Obviously, a huge market is waiting to be tapped with various dog breeds. He says he’s getting calls from all over the country. The owner of a large gift shop in Florida called and wants Nickerson to create flamingo and palm tree ornaments. One woman bought 20 ornamental shells for her Christmas tree.

The stores “started selling them like crazy,” Nickerson says, and everyone has reordered. “It’s a touristy thing. The Europeans take them home by the dozen. It’s unique. Nobody has ever seen them.”

The ornamental shells retail for about $25 each.

Nickerson has deep connections with the local fishing industry. His father, Willard Nickerson, ran Nickerson's Fish Market at the fish pier for decades, a business he also ran as well as being a commercial fisherman. Because of his background, he knows how to get all the sea scallop shells he wants. Sea scallops are shucked at sea, and fishermen dispose of the empty shells by tossing them overboard. But now, they’re lugging boxes of shells to Nickerson who washes them, bleaches them and grinds them to make them smooth. The clean shells are sorted by size and stored in stacks of plastic bins behind the barn.

After Nickerson works on the shells, they’re ready to go to Hensey Clutch Company in Orleans, where Nickerson’s original designs are cut out of the shells with a water laser jet. Right now, Nickerson has 14 different designs, each showing stunning detail, with the silhouette of Cape Cod being the number one seller, and the mermaid number two. Others include sharks, blue crabs, lobsters, stars, octopus and anchors. A silhouette of Chatham Lighthouse is just being introduced, and will probably take off.

Most mornings Nickerson’s out in the shed behind his house by 5 a.m., wearing a respirator to protect himself from silica dust, and grinding the rough edges off shells clamped into a belt sander. Each shell takes about five minutes to smooth. He’ll keep that up until 6 or 6:30 when he goes into the house and showers. After that he’s back in the barn, looking over the day’s orders, then he’s hitting the road to make deliveries from Falmouth to Provincetown.

“I deliver to save freight charges,” he says. When he returns to his barn, he takes orders. “By the end of the day I’ll have enough calls to keep me busy tomorrow.”

Nickerson and his wife Holly have two grown daughters who have recently gotten in on the business. His daughter Laura Nickerson packages the shells in boxes lined with black felt from a Rhode Island jewelry company. The boxes themselves need to be assembled, and each one comes with Nickerson’s “bio on me as the artist, or whatever they want to call it,” Nickerson says. (Nickerson speaks modestly about his talents.)

His daughter Kristine Beebe does calligraphy, and recently created special shell ornaments with the name of a bride and groom as wedding favors.

So far, Nickerson has turned out almost 6,000 ornamental sea scallop shells.

“When I think of that, it’s kind of crazy,” he says.

After the holiday rush is over, Nickerson has orders for nine shell mirrors. And then, when he can take time to breathe again, “I’ve really got to set up a business plan and see where we want to take it.”

Because by then, the summer season will be fast approaching.

For more information visit