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 shell.
courtesy of Helen Dennet
is a picture of a man from the southern highlands of Papua New
Guinea wearing a baler chest ornament.
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
Some of the other
ways shells have been used as adornment are:
jewelry (pendants, earrings, finger rings, nose rings, bracelets,
mussels of the Mississippi River system were used extensively to make
“pearl buttons” for many years.
- As buttons
and fasteners Abalone shells, especially the famous Paua shell
from New Zealand, were once extremely popular for buttons - until
plastic took over!!
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.
Shell or mother
of pearl (iridescent shell interior of many species of bivalves) were
commonly used on ceremonial or religious garbs, as decoration, or
intrinsic parts of their function.
adornment, pearls are frequently sewn on as jewellery, fresh and salt-water
pearls are used in many ways as inserts in ceremonial masks.
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.
Two examples of
man using the by-products of molluscs for decoration or fancy clothing
examples of man using the byproducts of molluscs for decoration
or fancy clothing are:
as fine gloves, caps stockings and collars.
These were once made from the "golden fleece" or byssus threads of
Pen shells (Pinnidae).
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 B.C., 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. (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 (i.e., name) of "Purple".
In the northern Mediterranean, the dye makers found they could change
the color produced by peeing into the vat! (The priests and nobles who
wore the finished product probably never even knew!!)
- An example of
this is The Association for the Promotion and Distribution Of Tekhelet
(Biblical Blue) 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 Wide-mouthed Purpura shell, 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
Some molluscs that have been used to dye material are
miliaris Gmelin, 1791 (Syn: Vitularia miliaris) (Mediterranean)
Purple Dye Murex (Murex brandaris):
Mediterranean - Millions and millions of these Murexes were
killed to make purple dye for the Roman Empire.
Murex (Hexaplex trunclulus (Linne,
1758)): 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
Murex brandaris and Murex trunculus
Rock Shells: (e.g. Thais haemastoma)
(Europe) - These live on rocks at the Low tide mark, and just
- The Atlantic
Dog whelk (or "Dogwinkle"):(New England and Eastern
Canada, and also Europe). In Nova Scotia, (Canada), someone
once tried to set up a factory to produce purple dye from this
species, but it flopped because it took too many people to gather
and handle the millions of individual specimens involved: by the
time they paid all the workers, there was no money left for to
make a profit!
- The Purple-mouthed
Purpura (Central America) (see above article on dyes).
Note: All of the above species belong to the Murex Family,
and all produce a bluish-reddish-purplish type of dye.