Cowrie shells in jewelry and adornments

Kojima cowrie shells necklace with a large Chinese fresh water accent pearl

From my first visit to India I brought as souvenir a cowrie shells necklace that resembled the one on the photo above (unfortunately it got lost somewhere). Cowrie shells have long been valued for personal adornment in India and other countries of Southeast Asia, as well as Africa. What made this shell attractive is its unique appearance, its hard glossy surface and its extreme durability.

Cowrie shells headdress of the Kuba people of Kongo
Cowrie shells headdress of the Kuba people of Kongo.Dallas Museum of Art

With a little imagination one can notice that its shape resembles the visible part of the human eye which led to its widespread acceptance as an amulet against the evil eye in many cultures. In Nigeria, for example, ceremonial headdresses are often decorated with large numbers of cowrie shells creating a sea of staring eyes gazing in all directions. Tribal men from the Indian states Orissa and Madhya Pradesh (the bison-horn Muria, the Koya) at their festivals wear many ornaments made of cowrie shells including a headdress of polished horns with a face veil of strings of cowrie shells, cowrie shell-decorated bandoliers and armlets. All that to ward off the effects of the evil eye.

Koya men with cowrie shells face veil
The Koya man with a cowrie shells face veil. Photo courtesy Raj Kumar

Man and woman from Bastar district, India, wearing cowrie shells adornments. Photo courtesy  Pradeep Dadsena

Men from Burkina Fasso performing a rain dance. Photo source

Another resemblence of the cowrie shell is that of "the female gate of life" which made it a symbol of female fertility, the womb and life itself. That's why cowrie shell became a popular element for woman adornment. It is used as button-type fasteners on jewelry; to decorate woman's hair and costume; to create necklaces, armlets, belts, aprons and shawls.
In Nepal, particularly in Dolpaa region, small children can be seen wearing numerous cowries incorporated into necklaces and bracelets. A belief that the soulf of babies can hide inside shells when evil spirits attack symbolically associates the shell with the womb, the original and safest place for the child's soul.

Hamer woman from Ephiopia wearing a cowrie shells necklace. Photo courtesy  Dietmar Temps

In Indian Nagaland, however, cowrie shells are used exclusively for man adornments, their presence indicates a warrior of great prowess - someone who had killed an enemy or a tiger, taken a head, burned an enemy village. Cowrie shells are used in earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and belts and on garments such as kilts, shawls and aprons.

Man from Nagaland, photo courtesy  Vinayak Hedge

Men's aprons decorated with cowrie shells are permitted only for those who had earned the right either by inheritance, social position in the tribe or by achivements in battles and raids. They could also be worn by an upper-class person who had performed ceremonial village feasts of merit. And what is interesting that cowrie shells must be sewn to the garment by the wearer himself, not by any woman be it his mother, wife or daughter.

Adi Pailibo woman from Arunachal Pradesh, India, wearing a cowrie shells belt. Photo courtesy  Franc Devriese

Nepalese shamans wear a special necklace, the front and back of which bear four cowries symbolizing the four directions, whilte the ninth shell in the centre of the front stands for the shaman's ancestor. Together the nine shells also represent the nine helper spirits.
Cowries are also widely used in India for animal decoration which symbolizes people's dependency on them and have the amuletic purpose of protecting them. Cowrie-decorated collars, necklaces, leg ornaments and trappings are made for bullocks, horses and camels.
Modern designers too use cowrie shells to create interesting jewelry pieces or to decorate clothes.

Cowrie shell brass bangle from KNIGHTBRIDGE

Mabe Pearls tiger cowrie ring from Mesi Jilly

Cowrie shells-decorated gowns from Therez Fleetwood

Cowrie shells-embellished dress from Sass and Bide

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  2. Very lovely pieces with cowrie shells...especially modern pieces by designers :) One can see that their inspirations taken from the original way the shells were used in tribes. Interesting article !!! :)

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