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What are Cowrie Shells?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 December 2014
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Cowrie shells are beautiful egg-shaped shells belonging to sea mollusks of the genus Cypraea. Almost all of these shells are considered lovely because of a very shiny surface that has been compared to the sheen of porcelain. A few cowries may be an exception to this. For instance, the Hawaiian granulated cowrie has a much rougher exterior.

The other thing people find attractive about cowrie shells is their many colors and intricate patterns. Most show variant colors in a range of whites, shades of brown, black, orange and yellow. The patterns can resemble polka dots, swirls, and stripes, or appear marbled. For this reason, you may often find larger shells used as home décor, and smaller ones are common in jewelry, particularly necklaces. There are over 150 different species of cowries, and they’re found throughout most oceans.

You could say that the colors of these shells have always inspired people. Early African groups used them as currency or in trade. The Ojibway tribe of Native America used white cowrie shells in sacred ceremonies. They’ve also been used as dice or game pieces, and perhaps one of the most unusual uses of them is as a frame for darning socks, since the smoothness wouldn’t further damage a sock or stockings.

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If you’re thinking of adding some decoration to your home with cowrie shells you’ll have a significant amount of choice in size and coloring. The smallest shells can be about .20 inches or roughly 5mm in length. The largest ones may measure 6 inches (15.24 cm) long. Consider a basket of these pretty shells where someone can sift through them or a vase or glass jar filled with them. You can use the larger shells as simple ornaments on a mantle or bookcase. The larger shells are fairly hard, and usually resist breakage well, so there’s not much worry if a visiting guest drops one by accident.

It has been suggested that cowrie shells may have been used in trade in North America. They’ve been found in archaeological digs too far from the oceans to have traveled by themselves. There isn’t consensus, but there is theory that use of cowrie shells in some form dates back at least 8000 years ago.

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DylanB
Post 5

@JackWhack – I love cowrie shells in necklaces! I also love them in bracelets and earrings, and I have all of these in my jewelry collection.

Cowrie shells are so small that they work well for jewelry, but they are tough enough to handle wear. That's why my cowrie shell jewelry has lasted much longer than my other cheap costume jewelry. These necklaces and bracelets are pretty cheap, but the shells won't break.

I even have a cowrie shell headband. I deck myself out in these shells when I go on vacation. People can tell I'm a tourist, I'm sure!

giddion
Post 4

My daughter is afraid of cowrie shells. She says that they look like they want to bite her.

I understand what she means. That jagged opening does look like a row of sharp teeth.

However, the opening is so narrow that I don't believe anyone would have to worry about getting their finger caught in it. Cowrie shells are basically harmless, but that is hard to explain to my daughter, who goes by appearances and listens to her fears. I have a bag of these to use as craft shells, and she makes me put them away in a drawer when I'm not using them.

JackWhack
Post 3

I see cowrie shells for sale in big bins every time I visit the Gulf coast. I don't really know what anyone would want with a bunch of loose cowrie shells, unless they take them home to use when making necklaces.

I do own one of these necklaces. Some pretty purple rope is threaded through several of these pearly white shells, and a few pink beads were added for extra flair.

It does make me think of the beach every time I wear it. I'm sure that's why a lot of people buy this kind of necklace.

wavy58
Post 2

@anon19338 – I had no idea that collecting cowrie shells was harmful to reefs! I have several that I have bought while on beach vacations, but I will stop collecting them now.

I didn't know that they could get very big, so I thought that the one I found in a souvenir shop measuring about five inches was a fake. It had a tiger spot pattern and shades of orange and brown all over it.

Someone had painted the word “Florida” on it in pastel purple. So, this really made me believe it was fake. However, after reading that they can get up to 6 inches, I think it is a real cowrie shell that someone just painted.

anon19338
Post 1

Removal of cowrie shells from coral reefs can damage the reef ecosystem and accelerate declines in reef health. Please try not to buy or collect shells from coastal areas. No matter how pretty they might look on your mantelpiece at home they look much more beautiful on reefs!

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