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Kuba Yet Belt

The cowrie shells on this pendant in the shape of a seashell are attached by threads passed through their natural slits.

The cowrie shells on this “lion’s paw” shape are attached through holes drilled into their rounded backs.

The slits of the cowrie shell can become part of an elaborate pattern.

key idea
Precious materials are prized for both value and appearance.

Glass beads and cowrie shells were the most precious materials in traditional Kuba decoration. Their rarity made them valuable. Glass beads came from Europe through trade. Cowries—the shiny shells of small warm-water mollusks—came from Africa’s distant coastal waters. Throughout Africa, cowries were used as money.

The more beads and cowries on a garment, the greater the wearer’s wealth and status. Royal garments, of course, had the most. Besides showing off someone’s wealth, the beads and shells had value purely as decoration.

The dramatic colors of glass beads never faded, and beads could be stitched into any number of patterns. The shiny white cowrie shells could be attached in different ways that added to the design. They might be threaded through their slits, so that the slits made a pattern of lines. Attached through holes drilled in their rounded backs, they formed little circles. And dangling from the bottom of a pendant, they became a fringe.

Beads can form stripes of color in any number of patterns.
January 2006