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  • Place of origin:

    Germany (possibly, made)
    Switzerland (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1530-1540 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Cowrie shell; silver-gilt handle, enamelled

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, The Foyle Foundation Gallery, case 6

This cowrie-shell spoon could have been kept in a Kunstkammer, but it may also have been used for particular purposes, for example for taking medicine, or for eating caviar, as the lack of silver on the bowl avoided the problem of oxidisation. Although the cowrie shell is inexpensive now, it was rare and exotic in the 16th century; a worthy addition to a princely cabinet and a splendid banquet. The silver mount added monetary value to that accorded by the marvellous nature of the shell. Unusual cutlery often functioned as conversation pieces at banquets, as the diners discussed the materials, value and make of the objects they handled. The owner's coat of arms on the spoon ensured that he was accorded the kudos due to him for the possession of such an artefact, and more prosaically prevented controversy over ownership, as it was passed around the table to be admired.

Physical description

The bowl formed of the segment of a large cowrie shell; silver-gilt handle, fluted, with a flat end in form of a shield, on which is enamelled the fore part of a horse. Argent on gules background.

Place of Origin

Germany (possibly, made)
Switzerland (possibly, made)


ca. 1530-1540 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Cowrie shell; silver-gilt handle, enamelled

Marks and inscriptions

Shield on fore part of horse



Height: 12.6 cm, Width: 5 cm, Depth: 3.4 cm, Weight: 0.04 kg

Object history note

Purchased from the collection of Ralph Bernal.

Historical context note

Secondary sources argue that mother of pearl and cowrie shell spoons were typical ‘kunstkammer’ objects. The Couverts de l’art gothique exhibition also says that mother of pearl spoons were sometimes used for special purposes, for example for taking medicine or as poison detectors, which indicates that spoons made of exotic materials were actively used. Giuliano Boggiali says that cowrie shell spoons were used for eating caviar and seafood, because of the lack of oxidisation. As with coral spoons, there are indications that cowrie-shell spoons were used on special occasions and sometimes left the display cabinet. The fact that another cowrie-shell spoon in the V&A collections has a fork attachment at the back of the spoon adds credence to the idea that cowrie-shell spoons were used on occasion, as spoons with fork attachments. This can be seen in paintings of banquets, such as that of ‘Lazarus and the rich man’s table’, 1618, by Gasper van der Hoeke (front cover of Pleasures of the Table, York 1997).

Other examples of cowrie shell spoons are not numerous, however the inventory of Charlotte de Savoie, Queen of France, made in 1483, does contain a "cuilleur de porcelayne garnye d’argent doré", where "porcelayne" has been variously interpreted as either mother-of-pearl or cowrie.

Cowrie (in this case it is the Cypraea Tigris) comes from the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific region.

Descriptive line

Spoon, with bowl formed of the segment of a large cowrie shell; made in Germany or Switzerland, late 16th century or 17th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Couverts de l'Art Gothique à l'Art Nouveau: Collection Jacques Hollander. Nice 1994.
Boggiali, Giuliano. La Posata. 1987.
Klaus Marquardt, Eight Centuries of European Knives, Forks and Spoons, Germany 1997.
Giovanni Pontano, De Splendore, 1498.

Production Note

Germany or Switzerland; Maker unidentified


Shell; Silver; Gold; Enamel


Gilding; Enamelling

Subjects depicted



Metalwork; Tableware & cutlery


Metalwork Collection

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