Cowrie Shells: Virtues and Meanings


Exploring the Significance and Uses of Cowrie Shells

Cowrie shells are small seashells that have been used for centuries as a medium of exchange, jewelry, and various decorations.

Valued in divination arts and recognized as true good luck charms in Africa, their benefits are well known. The significance of cowries plays an important role in many cultures.


No doubt you've already heard of these small white seashells! These little shells, found in the Maldives, have an original and delicate shape that is very appreciated by women. But what are the virtues of cowries and their properties? Where can one find these precious little seashells?

What is a Cowrie Shell?


You have probably already heard of "porcelain" shells, "coffee beans", "cowries"... Yes, there are many ways to name this fabulous little white shell! With its chic and cute appearance, it is nonetheless an interesting mollusk to study, and its history will surely surprise you. So, hold on, and let's discover all this together!

1 - A Univalve Gastropod


The cowrie, whose name may come from Tamil 'kauri', is a univalve shell discovered in the Indo-Pacific basin and belonging to the Cypraeidae family. This is a large family of gastropods (nearly 250 species), those of the "porcelain" shells, that is, shells rolled in a spiral.

This gastropod is small (up to 3 cm), so the appearance is flat and rather irregular. It is pale in color, ranging from white to beige, and sometimes has patterns (bands or stripes) darker, ranging from brown to green. Its opening is quite wide, with pronounced denticles.

2 - Their Use in Jewelry Making


With its clean, sober (beige, white) and elegant lines, this shell is the perfect accessory! That's why it is highly appreciated in the making of various and varied jewelry. Jewelers and jewelers enjoy it!

This is notably the case with shell necklaces with cowries, which can be chokers or pendants. The same goes for some cowrie bracelets, rings, and earrings, which are mostly made with small white or beige cowries...

You can also take a look at the items in the store to get a precise idea of what a cowrie jewelry is!

3 - Cowries in Art and Decoration


Next, another aspect in which cowries are particularly important is that of art and decoration. Whether it be paintings or sculptures, we find them a bit everywhere.

The same goes for interior and exterior decoration objects: from candles to vases through macramés and wicker baskets, the bohemian trend is fond of these little seashells!

4 - For the Most Knowledgeable Collectors and Enthusiasts

Mollusk collectors of all kinds will tell you: coffee beans are part of their favorite shells! Although they are not so complicated to obtain (we will see later), their beauty delights more than one, from the little ones to the big ones!

Cowrie as Currency


Cowries have long been used as a medium of exchange. This pretty white shell indeed has all the characteristics of a currency: easy to handle and transport, medium size, simple and quick identification... But where and when were they used in this way?

1 - A Rich and Complex History


Coffee bean shells were once used as a medium of exchange, especially in Asia (China, India, Indonesia) and Oceania. It is thought that their use began around the 13th century BC. At the time, owning cowries was a symbol of prosperity and power. Moreover, some populations even made cowries of jade or wood!

In the 17th century, after explorations in Asia by European and Arab sailors (via the Indian route), cowries were spread to Europe and Africa. In markets and remote villages, traders could use baskets containing more than 10,000 cowries to pay!

Cowries were often grouped on ropes or put in bags to carry larger quantities. However, for large payments, their use was not very practical.

Here's how cowries were counted:

  • 40 cowries = 1 rope
  • 50 ropes = 1 head or 2,000 cowries
  • 10 heads = 1 bag or 20,000 cowries

It is said that one day, a man received a very important payment in cowries. But there were so many bags to transport that the cost of the carriers made him lose all his money!


During the slave trade in the 18th century, tens of tons of these shells were exported by European states to buy slaves (as evidenced by this photo of West Africa). Amadou Empâté, a Malian author, the price of a slave could be worth up to 100,000 cowries.

2 - Their Place in the 21st Century


Finally, the use of porcelains as currency is still relevant today. Indeed, it is a monetary supplement in some African states (Benin, Burkina Faso). The cowrie was also chosen as the emblem of the Malian Development Bank.

Moreover, the Maldives, where many cowries are found (as the English say), has also decided to feature them on its 50 and 100 bills. In Ghana, the national currency is the Cedi meaning "cowrie" in the country's native language. The 20 cedi coin even featured the porcelain shell in 1991.

It is therefore a true symbol of wealth, used for centuries by local populations of the Indo-Pacific and African basins to sell, buy, and barter. It is still very present in African culture despite its demonetization a few decades ago and its abusive use in tourism.

Meaning of the Cowrie Shell

Used in rituals and traditions, these shells are at the center of various beliefs and legends. Indeed, the meanings of cowries are surprising and mysterious...

1 - Their Properties in Divinatory Art


Did you know that some shells were used in divinatory art? Here we are not talking about reading at the bottom of coffee cups or in a crystal ball, but in a small shell! This may seem like an imprecise or absurd science to some people, but it is not: it is a gift.

Real tools of choice for some seers, the meanings of cowries are very appreciated. Before any consultation, there is usually a purification rite with incense and candles. Some professionals even wear suitable outfits including diadems, turbans, headbands, belts, and jewelry.

Then, the diviner throws or releases the cowries on a carpet and interprets their positions in his own way to predict the future. The number of shells used depends on each fortune teller and the tradition to which he belongs. The Yorubas, for example, use sixteen cowries to seek advice from the Orisha spirits.

Most consultants are in search of answers, consolation, and above all advice. The most approached theme? Love. Then come health, money, work, family. What better way to be reassured?

The shells are therefore widely used in geomancy (the art of divining the future by throwing earth or pebbles randomly according to the figures that result from it).

2 - The Symbolism of Cowries in Africa


A true African symbol, this shell is used in rites, and in the making of many jewels and ornaments. Indeed, the cowrie would have many different meanings and properties depending on the country, or even the village.

Some African priests make costumes entirely or partly made of cowries, used during religious and warrior ceremonies. We can also mention objects with magical or cultural character adorned with cowries such as:

  • Horns
  • Fetish amulets
  • Statues

These objects and costumes covered with cowries are encountered notably in Casamance among the Diola, in Eastern Senegal among the Bassari, and in Togo, where traditional religion is still present. Finally, the Lodagaa of northern Ghana believe that the deceased need a toll of twenty cowries to cross the river of death and reach the land of the dead to the west.

Cowries thus have an important symbolism in Africa, directly linked to the spirits of the Earth and Oceans, and to traditional religions.

Virtues of Cowries


The benefits and virtues of cowries are thus widely used in the world, in religious rites, and in divination. True good luck charms and feminine symbols, they help with fertility and are real accelerators of beauty.

1 - Cowrie as a Good Luck Charm


In Africa, for example, when someone is attracted to cowries, it means that they have a family connection with the spirit of the Ocean and marine creatures. People who wear cowries are thus assured of powerful protection from the spirits of the oceans.

Some peoples also consider that cowries have powerful virtues and should bring prosperity and wealth to their owner. That is why we find a lot of cowries on traditional Asian, Oceanic, and African outfits, hairstyles, and also jewelry.

2 - An Element of Fertility


Cowries are often related to women. Indeed, their elegant shape can represent the female sex, or even the body of a woman (its curved back reminiscent of the belly of a pregnant woman).

Therefore, it is a symbol of fertility. The slit on the shell can also resemble a black pupil, which is why its virtues are often used to protect against the evil eye. This joins the previous point.

3 - Cowries and Beauty


Finally, the cowrie is an essential beauty accessory, for two points:

  • It is used to make jewelry
  • It can be used to prepare a traditional African facial treatment, intended to deeply cleanse the skin

To prepare this remedy:

  • Rinse and clean the cowries: how to wash a shell?
  • Place them in a glass jar and cover them with a little lemon juice to dissolve them
  • Wait one night: you will get a white cream more or less liquid.

This cream is applied to the entire face and provides a lightening effect thanks to the lemon and a clearer, smoother skin by eliminating transient pimples, spots, and scars. Enjoy a bright and flawless face thanks to the virtues of cowries!

Where to Find Cowries?

You now know a lot about cowrie shells! Their history, their "scientific" aspect, their properties and meanings, their use throughout the centuries... Let's now discover the best places to find cowries (and our secret spots) and the best ways to get these rare pearls (with our tips).

1 - The Best Spot: The Maldives


As we mentioned earlier, cowrie shells are mainly native to the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, consisting of over 1000 islands! Due to its paradisiacal beaches, geography, and climate, the Maldives are conducive to the development of unique species. This is the case for cowries, where they literally proliferate.

Still fished by indigenous and native peoples for the making of decorative objects or ornaments, they can be found up to a depth of 20 meters. You can find these precious little white mollusks on most coastlines. This is notably the case for the following beaches:

  • Bandos
  • Biyadoo
  • Embudu
  • Filitheyo
  • Lily Beach
  • And many others...

Don't forget your fins and a small bag to pick them up!

2 - Secret Places Filled With These Little White Shells


But the Maldives is not the only place where you can find cowrie shells... Indeed, the Indo-Pacific basin is filled with them! Whether in the East or the West, you have the choice as long as you stay around the Equator. Here is a small non-exhaustive list of places where one can dive to collect porcelain shells:

  • India
  • Sri Lanka
  • Indonesia
  • Philippines
  • Madagascar
  • Australia

You Will Never Underestimate Cowrie Shells Again!

Cowries are therefore charged with a rich and complex history! Their various uses, meanings, symbolism, benefits, and virtues are the very essence of their impressive notoriety. Symbols of the ocean and widely used in Africa, porcelain shells are good luck charms, and we should all wear them, whether in the form of jewelry or placed on a table.

Since they are mostly found in the Indo-Pacific basin, one must take advantage of a trip or live in this area to easily find cowrie shells! But don't panic, there are other solutions to get small porcelain shells without too much effort, for example by wearing a cowrie necklace or bracelet.

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