Coyote, bobcat, armadillo and ... human skulls.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Skulls Unlimited, a company that sells skulls — yes, animal and human skulls — sees its biggest uptick in purchases closer to Christmas, rather than before Halloween.
“This time of year, we start getting in more orders. Halloween, not as much, but most people looking for Halloween decorations quickly realize that we're not offering skulls for that purpose,” said Josh Villemarette, co-owner and son of the founder at Skulls Unlimited. “After Thanksgiving, up until the day before Christmas, we get slammed for orders.”
Skulls Unlimited is one of — if not the — largest osteological supply companies in the world. Supplying the world with both animal and human skulls and skeletons, the Oklahoma City-based company focuses on providing skulls of a variety of animals — from fish, to humans, to domestic animals, to birds. Villemarette said about two-thirds of the customers are medical professionals; the other third are collectors buying for themselves or gifts for others.
A small piece of the customer pie includes skulls and skeletons for props for movies.
“We have about 50 to 60 movies or TV shows that we've sold to in the past few years,” said Villemarette. “We have repeat customers, like the TV show 'Bones' and the 'Planet of the Apes' movies.”
The main bread-and-butter, however, is the medical industry. Veterinarians may purchase dog heads, cat heads and skeletons to be able to explain issues to their clients. Universities purchase human material to have in their labs and classrooms.
Shipping anywhere between 100 and 200 orders a day, Skulls Unlimited has provided its customers with hundreds of thousands of skulls and skeletons since its founding in 1986. Its biggest pride point is providing the highest quality available, which it calls “museum-quality specimens.”
“These are needle-cleaned and put under our chemical process,” said Villemarette. “So, in a sense, we have no competition when it comes down to having a professional-quality specimen.”
With about 35 percent of customers collecting and gifting for personal enjoyment, there is a following for those “museum-quality specimens.”
“There are a lot of people out there that take a passion in collecting skulls,” said Villemarette. “Just like someone else has trading cards, it's the same thing with animal skulls. Every one is different in its own special way, and so, it's kind of an endless collection.”
Villemarette’s father, Jay, started the company after building on his childhood hobby.
“He likes to call himself a 'skull junkie' as he's been collecting skulls himself since he was a little boy after finding a dog skull in the woods,” said Villemarette, who added that, through that hobby, his father started to collect duplicate skulls. “He would have, for example, five coyotes in his collection, and he didn't need that many so he would go out and see if someone wanted to buy them.”
Turns out, local schools would by the skulls for their classrooms. Villemarette’s father started purchasing more skulls from local trappers, as well as businesses and professions where skulls were the byproduct. The business was officially launched in 1986 with a one-page catalog, and through it all, no animal has been killed for Skulls Unlimited's purposes.
“Everything is already dead or is a byproduct of something else,” said Villemarette. “We'll get it in and refurbish it, clean it through our process and then from there put it on our website to sell as well.”
But because Skulls Unlimited is known for its quality and ethics being top of mind, the business faces a difficult and aggravating competition situation.
Villemarette used a raccoon skull as an example. On the Skulls Unlimited website, it could run $70 due to its proprietary cleaning methods, attention to detail and ethics on how the specimen died. However, when competitors on Amazon or elsewhere post a similar but lower quality skull for $10 — many times, “borrowing” the images and description from Skulls Unlimited — both the consumer and Skulls Unlimited lose out.
“A customer sees it online and thinks they're getting a $10 Skulls Unlimited skull, but when it arrives, they're upset,” said Villemarette, who can graphically relay what biological material is found in the lesser-quality skulls. “So, it's been very difficult to find that balance to educate the market.”
The market that does buy into Skulls Unlimited’s products has purchasing options, including the usual suspects, like credit cards and Paypal, but also layaway options.
“Customers will call in and ask about our one-of-a-kind specimens, which we may never get another one in. Or, we have regulars that call in and say, ‘I want that, but I can't afford it right now,’” said Villamarette. “So, we'll take a down payment and then payments over time.”
Which is a testament to Skulls Unlimited’s consumer base and interest. Skulls Unlimited has now opened two skeleton museums: One is in Oklahoma City, and the other, which just recently opened, is in Orlando.
Villamarette said that, at the end of the day, the business looks back at how this very alive company started as just a hobby based on the remains of something that was once living and breathing as well.
“My dad’s definitely grown it from the ground up quite literally,” said Villamarette. “Everybody always comments on how amazing of a story it is for him to take a childhood passion and make it into a multimillion-dollar company.”