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Spondylus Shell Jewelry: A Symbol of Fertility and Power


Posted on August 11 2013

Several Pre-Hispanic societies would sail rough waters to the Gulf of Guayaquil in search of the Spondylus shell.   Though some species exist in the Californian Coast, because of Ecuador ´s warm waters, two species of this beautiful red spiny shell thrive under the seas of the Gulf of Guayaquil, Esmeraldas and Isla de la Plata and Salango area. Why would people be willing to sail miles throughout the Pacific Ocean in search of these shells?   This is because these apparently simple shells, are charged with symbolic powers since Pre-Columbian times. Feminine Powers Spondylus has also been associated with femeninity.  This is because of its shape like the female vulva, and therefore they it was considered a powerful fertility symbol which needed to be present in religious ceremonies.  In Peru the Pre-Incan Mochica culture made ceramic objects representing the shell.  In Ecuador, the sophisticatedpre-Incan Valdivia culture, (3000 BC) which boasts the oldest ceramics in the Americas, made wonderfully elaborate necklaces, nose rings, and other objects out of Spondylus. Many archeologists believe the Valdivia Culture was a matriarchic society, so it would make sense that feminine symbols would be considered so powerful. At any rate, only members of the elite and high priest could wear Spondylus objects.  The Incas also shared this obsession for the spondylus, and some historians even think this is what led them to conquer what is present day Ecuador. An Ancient Trade Route Because of its importance, this shell made its way not only throughout the coast, but also from the jungle, to the Andes, and even to Central America.  Some archeologist believe it was used as a form of monetary exchange or ancient “coin.” An Omen of Rain In Peru the Spondylus only appeared when the water became warmer during the time of the El Niño Current in December, right before the rainy season.  For this reason, the indigenous people of Peru saw them as bringing forth the rain.   In hostile and dry areas such as the Peruvian Coast, it is no wonder these “omens of rain” were considered valuable.  When there was drought, and no Spondylus around, it only seemed logical to travel to the Gulf of Guayaquil in order to find these shells which would help bring the rain. Spondylus Today Unfortunately, Spondylus is threatened by Ocean pollution, harsh fishing methods, and overexploitation for it fleshy inside, which is also considered a delicacy by locals.  As far as consumption for jewelry, because it difficult to carve its spiky surface, there aren’t a lot of people who shape spondylus.  For this reason, local spondylus artisans aren’t really considered a threat for this shell. Today, one can admire samples of these beautiful ancient handicrafts in many Quito museums and Ecuador Museums such as the Salango Museum, Banco Central Museums, and in the Olga Fisch  Museum.  Artisans from the Coast are still being inspired by the beauty and symbolism of the Spondylus and continue to create necklaces, bracelets and other jewelry.  This is because spondylus has a shimmering effect with hues ranging from bright crimson, delicate pink, to a tangerine orange.  When one wears this fine jewelry, one can still feel the sense of mystery and sensuality it held in for the ancient dwellers of the Northern Coast of South America.

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