Wampum is made
from one of the hardest and most beautiful shells in the world
-- the Northern Quahog, a clam found along the New England coast.
Until recently you could visit The Stoneworks, our store and
showroom in Dunstable, Massachusetts, where you could see unique
shapes and sizes of wampum and other jewelry components made
from quahog shell.
Wampum must be a bead -- made
from quahog or whelk shell. The quahog can yield purple, white, or purple and white banded beads, but the whelk only
produces white. (Contrary to what many people want to believe, if it's not a bead, it's not wampum.)
The whole shell, or pieces of the shell, are not wampum until they have been drilled. Traditionally, wampum was a cylinder-shaped bead,
although early wampum was more like a disk.
In the 17th and 18th centuries,
people wore wampum necklaces and belts, and they used wampum
(beads, not the shell itself) like money. The value of wampum
was, and still is, mostly in the work that goes into shaping
and drilling the beads. (It ain't easy.)
The amount of purple also affects
the price. Most quahogs have a some purple in their shells, sort of a surface layer of purple. And this shallow layer of purple produces beads that are purple on one side and white on the other.
Only a small percentage of quahogs have a thick layer of purple in
their shells, purple that's thick enough to make wampum in which the color goes all the way
through the bead. In other words, there are not many quahogs
with solid purple shells. Purple wampum is slightly harder to
make (it tends to be more brittle), and it has been traditionally
more expensive than white wampum. However, white wampum has symbolized
peace, purity, and other positive virtues -- and still does.
So a necklace of purple and white wampum can symbolize peace
-- and prosperity.
Our wampum was about twice as
long and twice as thick as 17th century wampum. We made
our beads as large as possible, which today's jewelry designers
prefer. Our goal was to carry on the tradition of wampum,
not to make exact historic replicas. (We mention this because
if you wanted to weave a traditional wampum belt, nearly all of
our beads would be too large.)