Find cowrie shells
I have an obsession with collecting cowrie shells. Not every beach has them, you need to know where to find them.
Frequently, when beach metal detecting, the detector gets put to one side while I indulge my desire to pick up every single cowrie shell in sight.
In the UK, the cowrie, or cowry as it is sometimes spelt, is a small pink or white shell with a rounded back and a slit opening underneath.
More well-known are the larger tiger cowries that are native to the Indo-Pacific regions of the world's oceans. These beautiful shells can reach 6" in length, and are popular as ornaments.
Tiger cowries, from the family Cypraeidae, are typically mottled brown in colour, and have a natural, smooth and glossy shine. You'd be forgiven for thinking the shell you bought in a tourist shop had been polished in some way, but the clear, porcelain look and feel of those magnificent shells is entirely natural.
British and European cowries are much smaller than their warm-water counterparts.
With a maximum length of just half an inch, it takes a keen eye to spot them among the small stones and shell mix on the shingle, brought in by an incoming tide.
From the genus Trivia, two types of cowrie shells are to be found in the UK and Ireland, T. monacha and T. arctica.
Here I am going to give you some tips on where to find cowrie shells.
Cowrie shells I have found
Tiger cowries at Amazon
Cowries can be found in all US coastal waters, but are most commonly found in Hawaii.
There, the biggest tiger cowries in the world can be found.
Cowry shells belong to a coastal, shallow water sea slug.
It comes out at night to feed off sea vegetation,and to occasionally eat other sea snails.
If you want to find tiger cowrie shells, you will not see them easily, because they are covered with a tissue known as a mantel.
This mantle helps hide the cowry from predators as it camouflages their wonderful glossy shells so that they blend in with their marine background and are hard to spot.
Sadly, tiger cowrie shells are seldom found on beaches.
By the time a shell washes up on the seashore, the creature that inhabited it has long since died a natural death.
Such is the world demand for these shells, to be sold as ornaments, whole trades have grown up around the active hunting and fishing for them while they are still alive.
Collection of cowrie shells
British cowrie collecting
While there are several hundred different types of cowrie shells to the found world-wide, there are only two types to be found in Britain and Ireland.
The larger pink cowries are called Trivia monacha, while the smaller white ones are called Trivia arctica, or Northern Cowries.
They have a similar shape to tiger cowries, but are much smaller. They also do not have the shine and smoothness of the bigger cowrie shells.
Instead, they have delicate lines that go across the body of the shell.
A cowrie shell on the sand
Where are they to be found?
Cowries are to be found in seaside pockets all the way down the Western side of the UK and Ireland. They are seldom seen on Eastern coastlines.
I have also found cowrie shells in the Mediterranean Spanish coastal areas, and in the northwest of France.
Worldwide, they can be found off the coasts of China, India, Africa, Australia, the USA, Canada, the Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Despite being so geographically widespread, it comes as no surprise to learn that several cultures hold the cowrie in high esteem.
It was one of the earliest forms of money, collections of them being acceptable payment for good and services among earlier explorers and traders.
Monetaria moneta is the Latin name for the money cowry.
Accepted as a currency right up until as recently as the late 19th century, money cowries were offered in exchange for goods and services the world over.
Widely found in warm Indo-Pacific waters, they are small, white or yellowish with a gold-coloured ring around their backs.
Early traders saw money cowries become accepted as payments throughout Asia, Africa and America.
In a way, they made excellent coins.
They had more or less a standard size and weight, were easily recognisable, durable and easy to handle.
While exchanged by the basketful, they did not need to be individually counted, and were instead weighed.
Cowrie necklaces and jewelry
Cowries throughout the ages have often been used as adornments like necklaces, bangles, earrings and other jewelry.
In Europe, skeletons from the Stone Age period have been dug up with their cowrie necklaces still intact.
These have been dated back to 5000 - 7000 BC.
Even today, cowrie shell jewelry has its own rustic charm and are sold as necklaces, bracelets and earrings.
Beach for finding cowrie shells
Small shingle on the shore
What to look for when searching for cowries
In my experience, and I have been collecting cowrie shells for nigh on 50 years, the ideal conditions in which to find those wonderful little seashells are on a small pebble or sandy beach that has small shells on the tide-line.
On beaches with a lot of big shells or large stones, cowries are often absent.
This is because the large stones or shells will have crushed the cowries to nothing if they all came in on the same tides.
The wave action would have destroyed all small shells, leaving only larger and heavier debris.
Shorelines that have steep drop-offs into deep water are unsuitable candidates, as are beaches which are covered in large-leafed seaweed, although they are possibly underneath.
The beach in the photos here are perfect for searching for cowrie shells, and I know from many years' experience that this particular shore-line is especially rich in those wonderful pink or white gems.
Knowing where to find cowrie shells and on what type of beaches they can be found is half the battle.
Close-up of a cowrie shell on the beach
- Sophie Pierce - Articles
"Whether you are six or sixty, the thrill of hunting for cowries never fades, says Sophie Pierce"
- The Virtual Cowrie Hunt Page
"Chris Thomas, 52, a physicist at the University of Leicester, must be one of the UK’s keenest cowrie hunters."
- Country diary: Tarbat Ness: Romans, witches and cowrie shells | Environment | The Guardian
"Despite all these attractions I was there to fulfil the inexplicable urge to find a cowrie shell."
A fascination for cowries
They say that having a fascination with collecting cowrie shells runs in families, but I seem to be a first in our line.
I don't know what it is about cowrie shells, but put me on a beach where cowrie shells are, and you won't see me for hours.
I have jars and containers full of shells that I have no idea what to do with! They were never collected with a purpose in mind, but still I have this compulsion to collect them.
I thought I was alone until I found some other sites where other people have professed a love for collecting cowrie that borders on the maniacal.
If you would like to know more about where to find cowrie shells, just keep your eyes peeled to the ground when walking along the seaside.
You never know your luck.
Cowrie shell poll
Joe on October 01, 2019:
I have become obsessed with finding them each one is like a nugget of gold. We have them on the beaches between Arisaig and Mallaig west cost Scotland.
Glynn Torquay on September 03, 2017:
Regularly find both types of british cowrie on beach close to my home. But last week found a large smooth cowrie (perhaps an inch long), more like a money cowrie, but without the distinctive line. So it would seem, there are now three types to be found on our coast. Also thrilled when I occasionally find a wentletrap - beautiful gem of a seashell.
Doug Stemke on August 20, 2016:
Lovely contribution on 'cowries.' especially with regards to the UK and Ireland. I love the whole family, but I think most of us in the US consider only members of the 'genus' Cypraea cowries (Cypraea of course are now broken by many authors to many other genera). While we do have a species of Cypraea in California (as well as Trivia) and Florida has a few species of both, you are right, Hawaii is the place one is most likely to find them (I once found a fragment of Cypraea cervus in Texas, quite rare). Otherwise cowries are quite rare for the casual beachcomber to find in the US, the most like place outside of Hawaii being the Florida Keys with 4 shallow water and 1 deep water species.
I'm also really sorry o note your 'money cowries' are not money cowries. Money cowries are Cypraea moneta, Cypraea annulus is the ringed cowrie, a related species, which you are showing there.
Rene on March 30, 2016:
Where can you find cowries in Africa? I have seen beautiful tribal necklaces made out of cowries, would love to find out more about them!
Richard on November 21, 2015:
I have been collecting cowries for 40 years since my Scottish grandmother introduced me to them. We used them as counters or "lives" in games of cards. My siblings were never that interested in my collection or helping but I have stuck with it and enrolled my own children in cowrie hunting. There was a period of about 4 years when they were extremely keen to add to the collection. Sadly their enthusiasm has dwindled although my wonderful wife will hunt for short periods provided it isn't too cold! Interestingly I have collected the vast majority of my cowries on the East coast of Scotland. I have kept a running total for the last 30 years which now stands just over 400,000. I thought I might "retire" at the half million mark but the family don't think I will be able to manage walking along a beach without looking down at the shingle and shells!
Johan Smulders from East London, South Africa on August 08, 2015:
Good article from a British collector. I have just started a South African one.