They say you can hear the ocean when you hold a seashell to your ear, but I think just looking at one is enough to conjure your favorite beach spot. Yours might be somewhere in California or off the coast of Maine, but mine is the Florida Gulf Coast. Even if you're not a shell person, you can't help but become one once you've visited this collector's paradise.

Whether you know the difference between a banded tulip and a pink-mouthed murex, you probably have a shoe box of shells tucked away in the closet. They're too wonderful to part with, but how do you use them? The beauty of shells is that they make you look like an accomplished decorator even if you're totally making it up as you go along. When friends admire the large conch on your mantel, tell them you chose it just for this spot, even if you initially had no idea where to put it. If someone thinks that you arranged that tray of shells on your coffee table one by one, let her believe it, even though they were tossed in randomly. Shells also come to the rescue when you decorate in an all-white scheme, since they fit effortlessly into the palette.Shells not only whisper the sound of the sea, but if you listen closely, they'll suggest their own design ideas, too. Place them on cake pedestals as intriguing centerpieces, or fill a clear glass vase with shells and let them anchor fresh-cut flowers.

Shells with natural holes look beautiful dangling in windows or threaded on cording as curtain tiebacks. You can also string them on thin twine to decorate chair backs or cinch napkins at a summer dinner party.

When you display ordinary conch and crab shells behind closed doors in a glass cabinet, they take on an air of mystery. To create a delicate effect, group tiny coquina clam shells, which look like graceful little butterflies, in a pretty dish and place it on your vanity. For pure visual impact, line up an array of different-colored cowrie shells on a shelf to contrast their swirly patterns, which seem hand-painted. Fill out the vignette with starfish, sand dollars and sea horses - they all go together, so you don't have to worry about matching.

Once you begin to notice shells, be forewarned: You'll find yourself irresistibly drawn to folk art crafted from them. A stroll through the flea market turned up a jackpot of shell-covered things: vintage doll houses, flower pots and sewing boxes, as well as Miami Beach-style souvenir salt and pepper shakers from the '30s and '40s, not to mention funky conch shells carved with pithy sayings. If nothing strikes your fancy, make your own shell art. Encrust a frame with clam shells using craft glue. Embellish an ordinary jelly jar with scallops using gesso as an adhesive. Get out your glue gun and attach shells wherever the urge strikes, whether to a big old straw hat or a basket.

Every time you admire your creation, you'll take a mini vacation to the beach.