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Letter: Natural Shell Material Clearance

Letter: Natural Shell Material Clearance

by Chuck Erikson

Originally published in American Lutherie #100, 2009


Dear G.A.L. staff and members:

A great big howdy and a coupla doodies to ya! We’ve been getting increasingly numerous complaints from luthiers that instruments containing any type of natural shell material are being challenged by Customs agents at the U.S. border, causing delays in delivery, generating extra fees and paperwork, and incurring the risk of impoundment or even confiscation. All of this can be easily avoided if care is taken to include proper details on the customs forms (not only about shell but also bone, fossil ivories, and woods).

As the major supplier of all things nacreous, we can assure everyone that none of the shells offered are controlled, banned, endangered, listed, or protected and they’re all openly brought in under our U.S. Fish & Wildlife Import/Export Permit. But just because they’re “animal products,” F&W bureaucrats can cause unnecessary hassles and raise funding through various charges such as so-called “inspection” fees (even though any given package may not even be opened and nothing get actually inspected). A few years ago, during a private conversation with a F&W customs agent, he claimed huge numbers of these bogus “fees” were initiated in many government agencies during the Clinton administration as a behind-the-scenes method of increasing revenue while at the same time being able to announce publicly that taxes were not being raised; already understaffed, overworked, and underfunded, he indicated F&W employees were not at all happy with the added burden of now becoming unwilling “tax collectors” for the government!

Our website ( has full info about each shell species including common and Latin names and country of origin. On customs export forms it helps to mention that the shell is from a commercial fishery. If subsequently questioned, it can also speed things up if you then supply a copy of a sales receipt from whoever sold you the shell. But don’t include this with the instrument’s original paperwork; as with the IRS, never volunteer more than the necessary minimum of information when dealing with any government agency. Also, don’t bother protesting any customs charges. Just pay the extortion money and hope you drop off their radar the next time through. Complaining will only generate an official “file” on you, the last thing you want!

If you’re still having difficulty getting clearance, have the agent contact us and we’ll supply a valid license number and any other information they might want (such as country of manufacture).

Keep on luthing!