The word wampum is derived from the Wampanoag Native American tribe word “wampumpeag,” meaning white shell beads. The Wampanoag and other North Atlantic people used sculpted and shaped wampum beads for ceremonial adornments such as belts, jewelry and inlays, and to record messages, treaties and other important documents. Wampum beads were also used for money. Wampum beads are generally made from Quahog clam shells or Whiek snail and mussel shells. The Quahog are darker purple-toned shells and the Whiek snail spiral and mussel shells are white and more opalescent. Any of these shells were useful in creating the stunning wampum beads and jewelry that was integral to the coastal Native Americans long ago, and can still be recreated by you with practice and patience.
Things You'll Need
- Shells or Quahog clams, Whiek snails or Mussels
- Shucking glove (optional)
- Shucking knife (optional)
- Table with clamps
- Breathing mask
- Sandpaper (various grits)
- Baby oil
- String leather
- Silver or gold chains
Open the clam, mussel or snail shells and carefully remove the organic materials using the shucking glove and knife. Wash the shells thoroughly, place them on a table and allow them to dry. After drying, inspect the clams for colors. On the Quahog clam, the deepest purple is generally located along the thickest part of the shell at the edge. Long spirals of white shell come from the Whiek snail at their thickest part as well.
Clamp the shell to the table and use a hammer to lightly break the shell pieces apart. Wear a breathing mask if you're using Quahog shells, since the dust is toxic. If you are making beads, break the pieces into smaller more uniform sizes, whereas for sculpted jewelry, the pieces do not have to be as small.
Drill holes into the shell fragments. Depending on what sort of jewelry you are creating, drill one or two holes into the shells. If you are creating beads, drill the hole into the middle of the shell piece. Keep an eye out for colors. Mixing the white Whiek with the purple Quahog gives you an interesting combination of color and texture for your jewelry.
Sand the shell pieces into shapes using sandpaper, starting from roughest to finest grits. For a bead, the shape is rounded and smoothed by the different sandpaper. A free-form shape is sanded and shaped, with all sharp and rough edges smoothed. To achieve a shiny look, use baby oil and polish the stones before setting them onto their chains. Using a string or leather chain makes the wampum seem more authentic to native arts, however, a silver or gold chain gives the jewelry some elegance for a more formal occasion.