The incredible destiny of the cowrie

The cowrie is a small white shell from the family of "porcelains". It has long been used as a trading currency in Sub-Saharian Africa and Asia. Over time, it took a cultural meaning with a symbolic and ritual dimension. We find it also today in the fashion world.

Photo by Emmanuel Arewa

The cowrie as currency

Cowries were used as a currency in Asia (mainly China). Its use began during the Shang Dynasty between 1600 and 1046 BC. Then, the Zhou Dynasty, between 800 and 300 BC, used jewels made of cowrie, jade or fruit tree cores as money.

As for Africa, caravans of Arab traders were likely the first to introduce cowrie shells in West Africa, probably as early as the 8th century. During the 15th century, these shells were already circulating as a motto, especially in the Empire of Mali. Europeans, realizing the affection of Africans for these small shells, helped to make it the main trade currency, especially for buying slaves and gold.

Cowries have long coexisted with several other forms of currency throughout West Africa (silver coins and gold dust, copper or bronze bracelets in the shape of horseshoes, fabrics, pearls, and so on). However, around the 18th century, cowrie was the most used currency on West African trade routes. Until the 20th century cowries will be used for payment, as well as a symbol of power and wealth. And, until the beginning of the 21st century, some African countries were still using cowrie, such as Benin and Burkina Faso.

« Compteuse de cauris », 1895. Source: the New York Public Library Digital Collections

The symbolic richness of cowrie

With its voluptuous shapes, the cowrie is linked to the feminine, and thanks to its curved back recalling the belly of a pregnant woman, it is also a symbol of fertility.

The crack on the underside of the shell may look like a black pupil against the pearly surface, that is the reason why cowrie is often used to protect against the evil eye.


This shellfish has also a religious value. The animist priests use it during religious ceremonies in their costumes or in certain objects. It is also a divinatory tool as some people use it to predict the future.

Cowries fortune reader

Add to this its role of lucky charm (grigris) which decorates the outfits of hunters and warriors, braided in sacred masks and costumes of ceremonial dances. The cowrie can also be used in traditional medicine, and guides the deceased in their travels out of the world.

The cowrie and art

The cowrie is very present in ancient tribal arts in different forms as jewels, masks, headdresses and everyday objects.

Fetish mask of ape man with prognathic mouth. Wood, braided human hair, cowrie shells, vegetable matter, earthy amalgam and old traces of internal portage. Wobe, Republic of Ivory Coast.

Hogon Box - Dogon, Mali

The cowrie and fashion

In recent years, cowrie shells are strongly used in the fashion world. Mainly seen in the creation of jewelry, they are more and more used in the making of headdresses, bags or sandals.

La Falaise Dion is a young Ivorian designer who has chosen to make cowrie shells her signature. One of her creations has been brought to light thanks to the singer Beyonce who wore it in her last clip « Spirit ».

David Saggia is a Kenyan craftsman who creates jewels using cowrie shells in the heart of his creations.

Earrings by David Saggia

Ngoné Sagna, also a jewelry designer but a fashion jewelry one, is a cowrie lover. To know more about her career and inspiration, follow the link here.

Cuffs by Ngoné Sagna

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