By Karen Appold
They say that there’s much treasure to be found under the sea, including gold and silver. After touring a historic ship or museum dedicated to naval history, guests are often drawn to the gift shop to find their own treasures. So what glimmering treasures are all the rage at maritime museum shops these days?
In the jewelry category, Maureen Wolf, museum store buyer and manager at The Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass., said sterling silver earrings and necklaces by Lita Seaglass Jewelry made with real sea glass from beaches in New England, across the United States, and internationally, fly off the shelves. “Customers love that they are locally made in New Bedford and are intrigued when they learn that many other shops sell manmade sea glass that is not naturally found,” she said. These items sell in the $35 to $70 price range, which is a sweet spot for visitors looking for gifts.
White cotton sailor knot bracelets from Moby Dick Specialties in Fairhaven, Mass., are also a hit. “We buy them in bulk and they’re very popular with kids and teens,” Wolf said. These inexpensive mementos are a classic gift that reflect shipbuilding and maritime history.
Guests are also drawn to whimsical and classic earrings on beautiful cards by Semaki and Bird in Eastford, Conn., Wolf said. Best-sellers are sterling silver and 14k gold vermeil nautical and sea life earrings.
Kali Ellis, gift shop manager at Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum in Galveston, Texas, has also found that shoppers are attracted to earrings made with sea glass from the ocean. Sea Star Earrings by Del Mundo fit this bill. Each pair is unique.
The VivaLife Be Kind to All Kinds bracelets are also a hit for Ellis. The bracelet is intended to be worn as a daily reminder to protect the environment on land and sea. The braided bracelet comes in many different colors and charm varieties. They are popular because they can be worn at any age and support the environment, she said.
The one-of-a-kind Glow in the Dark Jellyfish Necklace by Dynasty Gallery which features a hand-blown glass jellyfish inside are unique and fun, Ellis said. Customers are drawn to them because the jellyfish are so lifelike.
Michael Gendreau, store director of the USS Constitution Museum in Boston Mass., said his shop carries a line of jewelry crafted by Pastore Associates which is made from reclaimed copper from the USS Constitution during its refurbishment. Current top-selling items are bracelet cuffs with a variety of designs (plain, hammered, and scroll design), earrings (the ship silhouette and anchors are the top two sellers), and the copper nail ring.
Heather Behrens, operations and store manager at Santa Barbara Maritime Museum in Santa Barbara, Calif., said wishbone silk string necklaces by Jennifer Shon of Los Angeles sell well among all age groups. They come on a card with the quote, “Wish upon this charm as you put this necklace on. When the thread wears out, believe your wish will come true.”
Lovebirds Jewelry by a local artist are also best sellers. The earrings feature various sea creatures and Czech glass, Behrens said. Each piece is unique. A stretchy mermaid bracelet also sells well because mermaids are popular.
Top-Selling Nautical Gifts
In addition to jewelry, nautical-themed gifts are also all the rage at maritime museum shops. For Wolf, Custom House Maritime Museum etched slate roof tiles fly off the shelves of the 350-square-foot shop. “What began as a fundraising effort when our roof was being replaced in 2019 has turned into a great sales item both in store and online,” she said.
The shop sells historic roof slate cheese boards, trivets, and coasters/coaster sets engraved with famous Newburyport ships featuring the museum’s logo and maritime themes. One of these ships is the USS Massachusetts, which was built in Newburyport as a revenue cutter and was the first ship to launch the United States Coast Guard. “We are proud to repurpose and recycle old roof slates into items for personal use and as gifts,” Wolf said. Killorglin Creations/Merrimack Engraving located in Andover, Mass., is the engraver. Items range from $8 to $40.
Redware pottery by Steinhagen Pottery are another best-seller. Owners Erich and Janice Steinhagen of Griswold, Conn., reproduce traditional colonial pitchers, steins, jewelry, plates, and more. The shop has sold and shipped its pottery as far away as England and Ireland. Products range from $12 to $39.
Wolf reported that Miscellany Brass and other items from Moby Dick Specialties of Fairhaven, Mass., including brass telescopes, compasses, door knockers, brass plaques, pillows, and decorative items are also popular gifts. The shop garners $14,000 annually.
For Ellis, hand-blown glass sharks and dolphins in unique colors by Dynasty Gallery are popular gifts because it’s fun to watch them glow. Ganz’s Good Luck Sea Turtle Charms are pocket-sized impulse items that are supposed to bring good luck.
Capiz Shell Boxes by Kubla Craft come in many different sizes and feature different nautical artwork such as turtles, sea birds, sharks, and dolphins. They are popular for gift giving because you can place a secondary gift inside of them, Ellis said.
Gendreau’s shop sells American Heritage Pens made with wood reclaimed from the USS Constitution during its refurbishment. The most popular is the Classic Slimline, followed by the Americana Rollerball and Americana Ballpoint.
One of Gendreau’s best-selling items overall is limited-edition copper medallions made from copper sheathing that was removed from “Old Ironsides” during refurbishment. An eagle depicts the iconic Marshall Johnson painting on the front and a replication of an officer’s decorative button from the museum’s collection on the back. The Hercules features a rendering of the ship as seen in the circa 1803 painting by Michele Felice Corné on the front and an artist’s concept of the ship’s original figurehead, a full-length statue of Hercules.
Selling in the Current Climate
So what can a shopkeeper do to increase sales amid the pandemic? Since Ocean Star Museum is located in a tropical and humid climate most of the year, Ellis aims to make the gift shop light and airy with lots of cool colors like blue tones to make it more inviting inside the shop than outside in the heat.
Gendreau said the key to boosting sales is attention to safety and sanitation. “When we’re open, we constantly clean,” he said. “We keep our collection of pens made with the ship’s wood in a glass case. When we take them out for a guest to handle, we quickly wipe them down with a disinfectant wipe and again when we return it to the case.”
The gift shop at the Custom House Maritime Museum has a flattering mirror in great lighting to show customers what jewelry items will look like when worn. “Since we live and operate in a tourist driven city, we strive to offer merchandise that customers won’t find in other gift shops in Newburyport,” Wolf said. “I visit all of the wonderful shops here and know their wholesalers.”
The Pandemic’s Impact
With COVID-19 taking a toll for over a year now, some museum gift shops have had to make changes to their operations. Wolf had to cut the shop’s hours from six days per week to four. The store is open despite limited tours. An online store was created for visitors who come in, call, or email for orders.
Ellis’ 816-square-foot shop reduced the amount of time it’s open to five days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It increased its online presence and has had many mail orders during the pandemic to help sustain sales.
The USS Constitution Museum shop reopened last summer and fall but closed again in November. During that period, it transitioned the museum store to a forced exit model and limited the number of guests.
As of early March 2021, the 1,500-square-foot shop is still closed, so it’s focused on online sales, Gendreau said. The shop has expanded its presence on digital platforms, such as the web, email marketing, and social media.
When it reopens Gendreau said they plan to keep it a forced exit store and will continue to offer virtual sales and promotions.
Behrens’ 700-square-foot shop has increased its online presence. In January 2021 it added 84 items to its online store. Pre-COVID, its annual sales were $59,799. In 2020, the shop was open four months and sales were $11,603.