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Necklace with Cowrie-Shaped Beads

This lovely necklace is notable for its cowrie-shaped beads. Cowries are a species of sea snail that is native to the Indian Ocean. Their shells were highly valued in sub-Saharan Africa, where they served as currency and ornaments for prestige items. Since they were not indigenous to the Mediterranean, they would have been a valuable import item. They may also have been popular in the Roman world because they came to be associated with Venus, the goddess of love. Although the shape of the shell is meticulously replicated in both gold and glass beads, the natural color of the shells is not imitated. Actual cowrie shells vary in color from creamy beige to black and they are often speckled or mottled, but with these beads, bright colors such as red, green, and blue are favored. It is possible that these colors, along with the elegance of the beads themselves, were intended to celebrate the skill of the glassmaker and goldsmith.

Roman
Necklace with Cowrie-Shaped Beads
Imperial period, 2nd century AD
Glass and gold
Necklace: 6 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. (16.51 x 12.06 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, 70.46.3