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African Cowrie Shells: A Dive Into Their History And Meaning

Crossbody Bag with leather flap and cowrie shells

You may have seen more and more African cowrie shells appear in everyday fashion items: hair accessories, dresses, necklaces, etc. But what is their significance and what is the history behind the look?


We’ll dive into the significance and symbolism of the African cowrie shell, as well as the ways they are used in women’s fashion. 

What are African Cowrie Shells?

African Cowrie Shells hold a ton of cultural significance, but what exactly are they and how do they look? Cowrie shells are small light beige shells that have a  similar shape as shell pasta.  They are ovular with an opening in the middle. 


Throughout Ancient Africa, cowrie shells were once used as a form of currency. These were a sign of wealth and were used up until the 20th century. In addition to their use as money, cowrie shells hold a spiritual significance as well. 


They bring good luck to the wearer and protect their spirit. Cowrie shells are especially helpful to women as they are believed to help them conceive and have a safe birth. 

What do African Cowrie Shells symbolize?

Cowrie shells symbolize prosperity, wealth, destiny, and fertility in Africa and the Americas. They are especially significant to Ancient Africa and its rich history and culture. According to African legends, the love of cowrie shells means that you may be “family to an ocean spirit of wealth and earth.”


These shells were also associated with femininity, as the shape of the cowrie is similar to that of a pregnant woman. Spiritually, cowrie shells are meant to bring in good luck and ward away any bad energy. It is a form of protection and is used in spiritual ceremonies and worn by pregnant women to aid in childbirth. 


Since cowrie shells were once used as currency, they were even used in exchange for enslaved people during the 16th century. A Portuguese shipwreck called the São Bento used the human-cowrie conversion system to trade cowrie shells for enslaved people and those same shells used in the exchange are now in a museum. 

African Cowrie Shells in women’s accessories

African Cowrie Shells are used in all kinds of women’s accessories. You can see them in pendants, necklaces, chokers, bracelets, earrings, belts, etc. 


The most common way cowrie shells are worn now is through African-inspired headpieces, braided into hair, or woven into locs. You can even buy hair jewelry with cowrie shells to easily place them in your hair. It’s more than just a fashion statement but is representative of Black culture and history.


You can find cowrie shells in more items than just hair accessories. This African cowrie shells bag has these as part of the closure, and you can also find these shells used as accents in other handbags as well. 


We also recommend looking into cowrie shell jewelry if you’re looking for a cute way to add some culture to your outfits. 

Summary

Cowrie shells have been used as money, as a way to trade for enslaved people, and worn as protection and good luck. They are still used traditionally in Africa and because of their deep cultural and spiritual significance, it has led cowrie shells to be popular in other parts of the world as well. 


You can find cowrie shells on all types of clothing and accessories from purses to earrings. Even Beyonce has worn a gorgeous cowrie shell headpiece for her musical production, Black is King which is meant to show the beauty of Africa. The designer of the headpiece calls it "a celebration of women as creative, divine, mystical, protective." 


Did you learn anything new about this cultural symbol from this post?