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The traverse of the cowrie

Yoruba Ibeji Male and Female, dressed in cowrie shells.

Cowrie shells evoke power, wealth and adornment

Living Cowries

Cowrie (Cypraeidae) shells have been recognized as many things for thousands of years. Adornment, currency, powdered for beauty and used widely today as a divination tool. Modern fashion has often welcomed this treasured mollusk as an accent piece and constant reminder. We know that aborigine people across the globe have utilized the cowrie shell as adornment on traditional garments as a sign of wealth and trade between the travelers from coastal countries (pre-colonial). Cowries can be seen on the garments of Native Americans and details of Mayan sculptures traded between voyagers from the Afrikan region.

Southern Cheyenne dress with cowrie shells

The cowrie shells embellishing the yoke of this formal Southern Cheyenne dress pictured at right originated in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. They arrived on the Plains via the ancient intercontinental trade network. (centerofthewest.org)

Recently, the simple white accessory has shown up in some amazing places. 

Crafted

Celebrities & athletes such as Beyonce, Tracey Ross, and Naomi Osaka have been seen sporting these amazing “Cowrie Mobile” earrings by  Beads Byaree .

NAOMI OSAKA SI Swim cover; credit: Yu Tsai/Sports Illustrated

Designer Areeayl Goodwin also found her designs gracing the new Brother Vellies summer 21’ campaign. 

Areeayl Goodwin x Brother Versailles

“The shells mean a lot, they were used as currency in many countries in Africa,” Goodwin says. “Money is called currency for a reason; it comes and goes like a current. [The shells] have a spiritual meaning to me, to let people know that when you release, you receive.(VOGUE)”

Accessory designer Tonya Cross of Accented Glory has used the shell medium for many years.

“Upon doing research on the shells, I discovered the shell is also the first symbol of money and wealth known to mankind.” Cross reflects. “It was used for the exchange of goods and services. My most exciting discovery was the cowrie’s magical history. The shell is believed to be a gift from the goddess of the water Mami Wata. She’s the most celebrated mermaid-like deity from Africa.”

Accented Glory cowrie band

As the center of the evolution of currency, cowrie shells have been woven into hair, textile and into the global economy as late as the 1930’s.

Global Currency Heritage

The book  “The Shell Money of the Slave Trade”, published by Cambridge University Press in 2003 highlights the importance of the shell even during the Great Depression. 

Cowrie shells were the ideal money stack because they are hard to counterfeit and became the global currency of choice. During the early 16th century, the shells carried from Benin and throughout Europe and the Maldives were long lasting, durable, easy to handle, portable, hard to counterfeit, right unit value for market needs, adequate constraints on supply and little leakage into other uses are mentioned by money and banking texts as the properties of the ideal commodity money. 

Cowrie shells were used for trade, resource purchase – and human acquisition.

One who has the shell, has the power.

Ghana coin

Once other regions tangled other shells into the global currency mix, it became harder to place value. And so lesser valued metal coins were distributed and the cowrie shells disappeared almost totally, and resurfaced during the depression of the 1930. They can be found occasionally in the markets of remote frontier districts, avoiding exchange and currency control problems. 

Cowrie shells are sewn into the mainstream fashion by way of urban culture and Afrikan diaspora representation. If you cannot connect to any of the latter, you can snag a plated cowrie shell ring for $20. However, in the right market a giant cowrie shell bib can demand a starting bid at $7000. 

Giant $7000 cowrie bib used for bride-to-be

Statement Piece

London based, Melissa Simon-Hartman uses cowrie shells at almost every opportunity with her own signature designs. Simon-Hartman is the mastermind behind some of the costumes for the “Black Is King” motion movie. Simon-Hartman writes on her blog; “In some contexts, the voluptuous shape of the cowrie was associated with feminine form – i.e., the curved back symbolized a pregnant woman.”

Melissa Simon-Hartman cage
Melissa Simon-Hartman golden cowrie cage up close
Head dress created by Content Manager at ELLE Magazine Côte d’Ivoire – Ivorian designer Lafalaise Dion.

The shell has maritime ancestral relation to divinity, fertility and healing.

For some, it is a simple cute sea shell to rock when in the mode – for others, it casts magic and bonds a connection with nature.

Either way you come across this highly coveted sea form, its attachment to the modern currency is an interesting research. To follow its journey from global acceptance to being replaced with lesser valued European coins due to inflation, requires thinking outside the fashion scope. Today the cowrie shell is still a symbol of wealth, good fortune and has been the singular inspiration and fuel to cultural adornment, labour, transportation and power.

Cowrie Rendering

Dres Von Noten
Tory Burch
Brother Versailles
Surperga
Cowrie shell boot harness
Hidea Tee
DIY

Tanita Gray

Editor In-Chief, Publisher and Founder of Last-Report.com. Tanita S. Gray is a footwear, accessory and apparel designer/developer by day - writer and content architect by night. With over 16 years experience in the fashion industry, you can find her teaching, talking about the benefits of CBD, drawing thumbnails, writing in her journal, giving her husband & children enormous hugs or eating french fries.

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