What Are We Wearing?

By Amy Chavez

For The Bali Times

Have you ever bought a necklace in Bali? Or should I say, how many hundreds of necklaces have you bought in Bali? It’s hard to resist those jewelry shops like the ones in Seminyak with dozens of species of necklaces hanging on hooks, draped in bunches like kelp drying on racks. I say species because each necklace features a different kind of shell. And this brings us to the all important question: What are we wearing?

Well, I’ll tell you what.

Cowry Shells

Cowry shells are one of the most common shells used in jewelry in Bali. Despite their misleading name, cowry shells are not shells for cows. They are characterized by their white, smooth, egg-shaped shells with a long narrow slit. They are attractive because of their porcelain-like sheen. Either that or because of the aperture’s resemblance to a certain part of the female anatomy which has contributed to making the shells a symbol of womanhood and fertility. Take your pick.

Cowry shells are 5-15mm long and are often strung together end to end in anything from necklaces to rope bracelets. The shells are also used as flower petals for flower designs on sarongs, hats and bags. There are many variations of the cowry shell, such as the Tiger Cowry (forest meets the sea?) that has delightful little brown spots on it.

Should you be the owner of a cowry shell product, you can be comfortable knowing that you are wearing a tropical marine snail’s house. Perhaps even a whole neighborhood of them. I am not sure where the previous residents are but they either evacuated in the wake of a Mt. Merapi eruption or they were evicted. But one thing is for sure – the mollusks that lived in them are no longer there. You have taken an active role in snail shell recycling.

The good thing about this is that should you tire of wearing a bunch of abandoned houses around your neck, you can still recycle them. There are plenty of slugs out there, for example, who I am sure would be grateful for a house. Face it, slugs, who are permanently homeless, have no hope of getting one. They are not like Natalie Wood, who received a house from Santa Claus in the movie Miracle on 34th Street. Not unless, of course, you decide to take on the role of Slugga Claus, giving homes to slugs. You’ve heard of Habitat for Humanity, right? Nothing wrong with Habitat for Gastropods.


No doubt, Pearl’s mother, whoever she is, has gained a reputation as a real beauty. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t admire Mother of Pearl and relish her iridescence. This strong, resilient shell is luxurious to look at. Mother of Pearl, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us! And indeed she has, offering us her eternal beauty in unlimited jewelry designs. In Bali, common designs are large round shell pendants, as inlay in resin or wood pieces, or as diamond shapes on necklaces and earrings.

Mother of Pearl, also called Nacre, is the inner layer of a mollusk shell. So if you’re considering recycling snail shells for slugs, or pursuing the Habitat for Gastropods project, you might want to contract Pearl’s mother for refinishing some of the interior walls.

New Zealand Paua

All the rage right now, this imported abalone features flashy, swirling combinations of pinks, purples, greens and blues. Taken from the inside of abalone shells in the shallow coastal waters of New Zealand, these mollusks live in luxury Liberace-style mansions — and on the coast! It’s no wonder they fiercely protect their homes from tidal surges (and hurricanes) by clinging to rocks with, get this, their large, black muscular foot! (Women with big feet, rejoice!). These large black muscular feet are also, however, considered a delicacy at the dinner table. (Women with big feet – never put your feet on the table in New Zealand!) It’s a good thing the Paua is endemic to New Zealand. If we had them in Bali, a whole new market would open up for abalone foot massages. “Hey Paua, you want massage?”

The most common variety of Paua is Haliotis Iris (having nothing to do with bad breath) and all varieties of Paua have strict catch limits. They are only to be caught by free diving (no scuba equipment allowed) and the limit is up to 10 per day per person. Thus, paua jewelry is more expensive than jewelry made from other shells.

Nautilus Shell

The nautilus is a cephalopod. It is considered a living fossil, having survived millions of years. They have up to 90 tentacles, but unfortunately, these are removed when making jewelry. Oliver Wendell Holmes actually wrote a poem for the Chambered Nautilus.

But the brown-striped cephalopod is more commonly the subject of pendants on beaded necklaces in Bali. One type of nautilus, the Emperor Nautilus, has reached up to 26cm in Indonesia. Imagine wearing that around your neck! It would certainly impair your posture.

But at least you would know what you are wearing.

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