A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.

Cowry, also sometimes spelled cowrie, plural cowries, is the common name for a group of small to large sea snails, marine gastropod molluscs in the family Cypraeidae, the cowries. The word cowry is also often used to refer only to the shells of these snails, which overall are often shaped more or less like an egg, except that they are rather flat on the underside.

Many people throughout history have found (and still find) the very rounded, shiny, porcelain-like shells of cowries pleasing to look at and to handle. Indeed the term "porcelain" derives from the old Italian term for the cowrie shell (porcellana) due to their similar translucent appearance.[1] Shells of certain species have historically been used as currency in several parts of the world, as well as being used, in the past and present, very extensively in jewellery, and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.

Some species in the family Ovulidae are also often referred to as cowries. In the British Isles the local Trivia species (family Triviidae, species Trivia monacha and Trivia arctica) are sometimes called cowries. The Ovulidae and the Triviidae are somewhat closely related to the Cypraeidae.

Shell description

Shells of various species of cowries; all but one have their anterior ends pointing towards the top of the page in this image

The shells of cowries are almost always smooth and shiny and more or less egg-shaped, with a flat under surface which shows a long, narrow, slit-like opening (aperture), which is often toothed at the edges. The narrower end of the egg-shaped cowry shell is the anterior end. The spire of the shell is not visible in the adult shell of most species, but is visible in juveniles, which have a different shape than the adults.

All cowry shells have a porcelain-like shine except Hawaii's granulated cowry, Cypraea granulata. Many have colorful patterns. Lengths range from 5 mm for some species up to 15 cm for the tiger cowry, Cypraea tigris.


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary: "The ceramic material was apparently so named on account of the resemblance of its translucent surface to the nacreous shell of the mollusc. [...] The cowrie was probably originally so named on account of the resemblance of the fissure of its shell to a vulva (it is unclear whether the reference is spec. to the vulva of a sow)."

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Cowry — Cowrie Cow rie Cowry Cow ry(kou r[y^]), n.; pl. {Cowries} ( r[i^]z). [Hind. kaur[imac].] (Zo[ o]l.) A marine shell of the genus {Cypr[ae]a}. [1913 Webster] Note: There are numerous species, many of them ornamental. Formerly {Cypr[ae]a moneta} and …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • cowry — noun a) Any of the marine molluscs of the genus Cypraea. b) The money cowry, Cypraea moneta …   Wiktionary

  • cowry —   n. small sea shell used as money in E Indies.    ♦ cowry bird, Indian weaver bird …   Dictionary of difficult words

  • Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin — Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent Leader Yayi Boni Chairman Janvier Yahouédéou Secretary General Timothée Zannou Ideolog …   Wikipedia

  • cowry — noun see cowrie …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Cowry — Kaurischnecken Neobernaya spadicea Systematik Klasse: Schnecken (Gastropoda) Überordnung …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • cowry — /kow ree/, n., pl. cowries. cowrie. * * * …   Universalium

  • cowry — n. type of sea snail …   English contemporary dictionary

  • cowry — cow·ry …   English syllables

  • cowry — /ˈkaʊri / (say kowree) noun (plural cowries) 1. the shell of any of the marine gastropods constituting the genus Cypraea, as that of C. moneta, a small shell with a fine gloss, formerly used as money in certain parts of Asia, Africa, and the… …  

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