Defining the Cauri Shell

Cauri shells (also spelled cowrie, cowry or kauri) are among the most beautiful and eye-catching shells to come into human attention. There are over 250 species of cauri living in warm-waters of the world. and some of them have become known as “money shell cauri” (because of the use to which the shells were put). Other interestingly named cauri are purple top cowrie, map cowrie, tiger cowrie and deer cowrie.

A relatively new and growing site, Encyclopedia of Life, is building a repository of information on what they intend to be descriptions of all life on the planet. There are currently 12 entries about some of the many species of cowrie.

The beauty of these shells probably explains why they became the first used as the first currency in China. It was China that first came up with the concept of money, having a small object that had an inherent “value” that could be used to purchase a needed or desired item.

Cauri shells were first used as currency in China about 3500 years ago, in the 16th century BCE, when mention was made of their use on Shang dynasty bronze and pottery artwork, and followed by use in the Zhou dynasty as lands were added by the imperial dynasty. The shells were also used for decoration and jewelry. In the development of the Chinese writing system, the representation for the cauri shell became the graphic representation for the word “money.”

Other cultures which used cauri shells as currency included India, Thailand and many of the cultures in Africa, from the shores of the Indian Ocean and across the continent to West African cultures along the Guinea coast.

The shells are small, colorful and have a shiny finish, resembling small egg-shaped pieces of porcelain. A “money cowrie shell” has even been found during archaeological excavations at the home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. Its discovery is seen as evidence of the importance of the shells in African culture, even in the Americas.

Cauri shells are no longer used as money, but are still much valued for their decorative and jewelry uses. Use is made world-wide, and they have been incorporated into decorative additions to clothing and masks and art work. The shells are used as entire shells in jewelry making, and have also been used in making beads, and one company in India, Jhillu Prasad Motiwala ( has cauri beads available in quantities of one kilogram (minimum), which would have approximately 800 beads.

Whatever you call them: cauri, kauri, cowry or cowrie, you must admit that nature has produced some creatures that are valued for their lasting beauty and value. The cauri is one (or should I say 250) of them.