White Conch of Chank Shells in Naga Tribal Cultures

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Turbinella Pyrem, white Conch shells or Chank shells, are harvested mainly from  the sea coasts of India and Pakistan. They  and grow up to 1,5 kg in weight and 20-25 cm in length Chank shells have been used as ornaments in Nepal, Tibet, India and Burma for more than 4000 years. They are especially favored by Naga people, an ethnic group comprising of several tribes native to the northeastern part of India and north-western Myanmar (Burma). The tribes have similar cultures and traditions, and form the majority ethnic group in the Indian state of Nagaland, with significant population in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and some small population in Assam.  The Naga tribes practiced headhunting and preserved the heads of enemies as trophies throughout the 19th century and as late as 1969.

Naga adornments, with white Conch or Chank shells in both jewelry and textiles, are very important as a symbol of tribal  and cultural identity. They are used by women in jewelry and usually reserved for men who have achieved some important victory in the war.

The abundance of Chank shell jewelry is especially  visible during elaborate Naga ceremonies. A strict control of the ornaments attribution allows differentiation and recognition in hierarchical status of various community members. White Conch /Chank shells are traditionally  made into beads,  necklaces, pendants, belts, head ornaments, bracelets, and earrings. In Tibet, they are  also used  as ritual  objects which are set with silver or gold , decorated with turquoise and coral, and used in religious ceremonies.

At present, most of the production of white Conch /Chank beads and jewelry  comes from Nepal, where there are many artisans engaged in that craft and trade. These artisans are mainly from Tibet and Nagaland who settled down in Nepal due to political conflict. 

The Conch shells, in  craft community centers, go through many lengthy procedures to achieve  the antique finish before making them into wearable art pieces, popular in the world jewelry markets. Initially they are highly polished with sand paper, and then they are heat treated on fires which bring black veins on the surface of the pieces.  

Conch shells are also inlaid with Turquoise, Coral, and Lapis  to fill the indentations on the specific conch pieces. In Nepal,  conch shells  are frequently  also set with sterling silver and brass to make them into ornate beads, pendants and other jewelry objects.

The images enclosed are of Conch shell jewelry objects and Naga women wearing them.

Born in Croatia, Sylvia Gottwald studied fine art and design in Italy and Canada prior to earning her Masters of Architecture from Harvard University and completing her post-graduate in City Planning at MIT. In 2000, following her long, successful career practicing architecture and urban planning locally and internationally, she turned her attention and efforts to the gems of the oceans.Ms. Gottwald transforms the natural beauty and iridescence of nacre/mother-of-pearl and pearls into contemporary wearable art. Her avant-garde designs integrate nacre with precious metals, semi-precious gems, and edgy modernmaterials such as rubber and steel. Her interest in nacre is not only it’s inherent beauty, but also the importance of oysters to our marine ecosystems. The pearly oysters filter polluting nitrogen and plankton, protecting the oceans, and adding to the sustainability of life on our planet. In addition to their precious nacreous shell, they create a mysterious gem- the pearl- the only gem created by a living organism. Ms. Gottwald’s growing list of published work includes the covers of European Vogue, Elle Decor, Ornament, Home & Design, exhibited at the Musée des Arts décoratifs, Palais du Louvre (Paris); Musée de la Nacre (Paris/Meru); Museum of Modern Art (New York City); Museum of Contemporary Art Kampa (Prague); Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC); and the International Museum. Photo: SYLVIA GOTTWALD, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, 2012. Photograph by Domagoj Blazevic. of Applied Arts (Turin).