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Personal Adornment
It can be said that every culture has used shells, whole or in part, and pearls as personal adornment. Some cultures even wore shells as part of their elaborate costume to signal their distinct tribal identities and to display their role and rank within the tribe. In some parts of India, a Hindu woman's equivalent of a wedding ring is a bracelet made of the sections of the Indian (or Sacred) Chank. 

Some of the other ways shells have been used as adornment are: 

  • as shell jewelry (pendants, earrings, finger rings, nose rings, bracelets, etc.)

  • as buttons and fasteners Abalone shells (Haliotis), especially the famous Paua shell (Haliotis iris Martyn) from New Zealand, were once extremely popular for buttons -  until plastic took over!!

The freshwater mussels of the Mississippi river system were used extensively to make "pearl buttons" for many years.  According to one source (Pennak) in the year 1912 there were 196 pearl button factories in 20 states along the rivers of this great river system. They sold over 6 million dollars worth of buttons that year. These same mussels are today being used as the "seed" for cultured pearls.
  • As decoration or as intrinsic parts of their function, shell or mother of pearl (iridescent shell interior of many species of bivalves) were commonly used on ceremonial or religious garbs.

  • As clothing adornment, pearls are frequently sewn on as jewelry, fresh and saltwater pearls are used in many ways as inserts in ceremonial masks.

  • A new page showing many forms of shell use

  • Denatlium Purse. These photos show a carved elk antler purse which was used by the people of Hoopa Indians in California to carry their Dentalia shell money. It was made and used by men.

Picture courtesy of Helen Dennet


Here is a picture of a man from the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea wearing a baler chest ornament.

Different cultural groups have evolved different ways of decorating themselves with shells and one can often guess which tribe a person comes from by the shells being worn.


To see more photos of New Guineans wearing tribal costumes, click HERE

Two examples of man using the byproducts of molluscs for decoration or fancy clothing are:
1. as fine gloves, caps stockings and collars. These were once made from the "golden fleece" or byssus threads of Pen shells (Pinnidae).

Pinna ragosa

2.  as Dyes: Dyes made from molluscs were used to beautify clothing and other items made from cloth.

Depending on the species of mollusc used, the final product varied from red to violet to almost black. As early as the fifteenth century BC, the people of Tyre and Sidon had found a way to extract the purple dye from some molluscs. The same royal purple colour worn by kings, emperors and high priests in the past is still used in the robes and alter mantles of some religions today
FONT-Note: The color the ancients called "purple" (Royal or otherwise), was in fact closer to a dark burgundy or maroon, and various shades of blue were also included under the general moniker of Purple.  In the northern Mediterranean, the dye-makers found they could alter the color produced by urinating into the vat! (The priests and nobles who wore the finished product probably never even knew!)).

An example of this is The P'til Tekhelet (i.e., "Biblical Blue"), the Association for the Promotion and Distribution Of Tekhelet in Jerusalem, Israel. This society still uses and makes the Biblical blue to produce the Jewish ritual fringes on their prayer shawls. In the Old Testament, this blue was so rare and highly valued that it could be collected only once every seventy years and was used to dye just one thread at each corner of the prayer shawl.

Even though artificially produced dyes are available at a fraction of the cost, many Mexican and South American natives still prefer the molluscan dyes for their garbs, since they produce more natural - looking and traditional hues.  In Oaxaca, the Mixtec still search the seashore for the pretty Purpura patula pansa Gould, 1853) (the "Wide-mouthed Purpura"), squeeze some of their juices onto yarns, and return the shell to its home, to be used again the following season. These same dyes were used as early as 400 BC

Some molluscs that have been used to dye material are:

  • Murex miliaris Gmelin, 1791 (Syn: Vitularia miliaris) (Mediterranean)
    Note: once known as M. purpura Deshayes, 1834.  This is a good example of a "synonym": when someone gives a name to a species (i.e., "describes" it, in scientific lingo, since the process involves publish a description of a single specimen of the species, which becomes known as the "holotype" for that species, or several specimens, which are then called "syntypes"

Murex miliaris

(Syn in Latin means "together" - the specimens are used together, as a group, to represent the species.) which someone else has already described before, the first name has priority when other scientists discover that the two names have been given to the same species.  The second (and all other names a species may accumulate - up to a hundred or more, for very variable beasties!) then becomes a "synonym" of the first name, which is the only one that is valid. 
This can cause confusion at times, especially when a name has been used for a long time before an older name is dug up, and everyone has to change his or her labels! - But it is the only fair way of making sure the original describer (known as an "author", since every new name for anything must be published in an article in a scientific journal, or in a book) gets the credit he or she deserves.

Murex brandaris
and Murex trunculus
  • The Purple Dye Murex (Murex brandaris L.- (Mediterranean):
    : Linneus described (i.e., named) so many common species that his name as an author (see above note) is often simply abbreviated to "L.", for convenience!)  - Uncounted millions of these Murexes were killed to make purple dye for the Roman Empire!

  • Hexaplex trunculus (Linne, 1758): (right)
    This shell was equally important with brandaris in the ancient purple trade and it was most extensively used by the Phoenicians, but also by the Romans and other Mediterranean cultures.
    See: Ode To Murex trunculus.
    By Gilbert E. Brooke.
( For more information on this subject, a good; but be warned, rather technical site for more information is:  Applications of Synchrotron Techniques in Art and Archaeology Workshop )
  • Certain Rock Shells Thais haemastoma (L.), T. clavigella (Kuster, 1856), and T. leucostoma (Gmelin, 1791)) (Europe)

Thais haemastoma
  • The Atlantic Dog whelk (or "Dog winkle"): (New England and Eastern Canada, and also Europe).(Nucella lapillus (L.)) In Nova Scotia, someone once tried to set up a factory to produce purple dye from this species, but it flopped because it proved too labor-intensive to gather and handle the millions of individual specimens involved: by the time they paid all the workers, there was no money left for profits!



Nucella lapillus
  • The Purple-mouthed Purpura:(Purpura patula pansa (Gould, 1853)).(Central America) (see above article on dyes).





Purpura patula pansa
Note: All of the above species belong to the Murex Family, and all produce a bluish-reddish-purplish type of dye.

Concholepas concholepas

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