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The Beauty & Significance of Tusk Shells in Jewelry and Commerce

Amber Chesebro

Posted on May 16 2024

white tusk shell jewelry on model

In the world of indigenous jewelry and adornment, few materials hold the same cultural and historical significance as dentalium shells (aka. tusk shells). These elegant, tubular shells have been used for centuries by indigenous peoples across North America, from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains and beyond, to create stunning pieces of jewelry, adornment, and even as a form of currency and commerce.

dentalium tusk shell jewelry and clothing on native americans

Dentalium shells are actually the elongated, cylindrical shells of marine mollusks belonging to the scaphopod family. These shells are naturally occurring and can vary in size, with some species growing up to several inches long. They are typically smooth, glossy, and have a slight curve, resembling a slender tusk or tooth, hence the name "dentalium."


Illustration by Laura Corsiglia (2007)

For many indigenous cultures, dentalium shells hold deep spiritual and cultural significance. They are often seen as symbols of wealth, status, and spirituality, and are used in various ceremonies and rituals. Dentalium shells have been traditionally used in the creation of headdresses, necklaces, earrings, and other forms of adornment worn by tribal leaders, dancers, and individuals during important ceremonies and events.

indigenous headdress made out of dentalium tusk shells
Photo: Alaska State Musuem

Beyond their use in jewelry and adornment, dentalium shells also played a significant role in indigenous commerce and trade. Among certain tribes, dentalium shells were used as a form of currency, valued for their beauty and rarity. They were traded over vast distances, becoming a symbol of wealth and prosperity among many indigenous communities.



In modern times, dentalium shells continue to hold cultural and artistic value. Many contemporary artisans incorporate dentalium shells into their work, creating exquisite pieces of jewelry and adornment using these beautiful shells in innovative and unique ways.

dentalium tusk shell jewelry on model in the sun
Photo: Samantha Feyen (2023)

Dentalium shells are more than just beautiful adornments; they are a testament to the rich cultural heritage and traditions of indigenous peoples across North America. From their use in jewelry and adornment to their role in commerce and trade, dentalium shells have an fascinating history that contemporary artists continue to pay homage to.

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