Historical evidence of worldwide use of shells as currency exists on every continent. Although there is debate about the economic use of beads as currency, the use of shell money is undeniable. Shells are part of a commodity based monetary system, wherein the currency has intrinsic value and is not representative of other value. Today, precious metals like gold and silver are intrinsically valuable and may be used to pay for items, although it is highly irregular. The development of commodity shell money and the recent trends in shell jewelry are related.
Commodity based systems are very close to the barter systems discussed in the Celtic Ring Money post, but not barter in the strict meaning of the term. The cowrie money shells of Africa, wampum of North America, and other intrinsically valuable shell monies gain their value by mutual agreement between trading partners. The closer an individual is to the source of the commodity money, the less valuable the money-item is. In coastal regions of Africa, more cowrie money shells were required to make a purchase when compared to the regions further from the coast where fewer cowrie shells were needed to purchase an equal amount of goods. The same holds true today. Oil, and therefore gasoline, is a commodity and as such is more expensive further from the source, eg, gasoline is less expensive the closer a person is to an oil refinery and more expensive in areas without oil refineries. But what does this have to do with jewelry?
Shell jewelry is making a comeback. Both Vogue and People ran stories touting the “must have” status of beach jewelry, specifically shell jewelry in numerous creative and beautiful iterations. Coming full circle, the fashion industry has taken a non-value item and endowed it with value, in the same way that ancient traders took shells and endowed them with commodity value.
Look for shell jewelry – coming soon to Pendant and Ring!!