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This shell has always generated interest: History of wampum

This Shell has Always Generated Interest: History of Wampum, September/October 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

Chatham jewelers Martha Lucia Nunez and her daughter, Mercy Moon Reed, shape quahog shells by hand to create their striking wampum pieces. Photo courtesy of Lucia Moon Designs

In a 2013 article for Indian Country Today, a website maintained by the Indian Country Media Network, Ann C. Tweedy writes, “How wampum changed from bling to money is a complicated story. The colonists did not have printed currency, so their trade economy was mostly based on the barter of commodoties such as corn and pelts. When wampum became a prime commodity in the Northeast corner of North America in 1630, it forever altered the Native systems of reciprocity and balance in life, labor and trade.”

Today, wampum has deteriorated into an American slang term for money. However, the artistic and monetary value of wampum lives on in the work of a number of local jewelry artists. Lucia Moon Designs is the Chatham jewelry business of Martha Lucia Nunez and her daughter, Mercy Moon Reed. Nunez, who has Cherokee heritage, grew up on the waters of Cape Cod’s Nantucket Sound and has had a commercial shell fishing license for 47 years. She drags for quahogs and uses the shells in her designs. She and her daughter honor the native craftsmanship as they cut, polish and drill all of their pieces by hand.

Nunez recalls the first time she saw the colorful beads. “I saw a wampum story belt at Harvard’s Peabody Museum,” she recalls, “and I was hooked.” She describes her craft as “shell shaping,” which combines her love of both the water and art, and she views it as a way to strengthen her link to her own heritage. Her shells come from live quahogs and from the “shack,” or broken shell debris, that is dragged up by her boat. She explains that different areas of Nantucket Sound produce shells of different coloration and thickness. “In shore” shells produce more white and purple bands, she says, while deeper water areas near Monomoy Island are home to the thickest and deepest purple “blunts.” “The sea and all things related to it are a part of me,” Nunez says. “From going out in my boat and finding the shell, to shaping it into beads, it’s uplifting and satisfying. I simply enjoy shaping shells into beads.”

Before the Europeans came to North America, the native people revered wampum beadwork. It was used in story belts and worn as personal adornment. Following the arrival of the first colonists, wampum was established as a valid currency for trade. Today, wampum has come full circle—it is prized for its rare and traditional beauty, and is once again being adorned as jewelry.

To read the full article, “From Beads to Bounty: How Wampum Became America’s First Currency—And Lost Its Power,” by Ann C. Tweedy, visit

Where can you find wampum jewelry?

“Stuffed” Quahog by Jennifer Chisser • 774-313-8767 •

A non-edible stuffed quahog—a wampum pendant with a pewter quahog charm tucked inside each shell.

Heart of Stone • 508-833-8500 •

A vast collection of coastal inspired jewelry including wampum.

Valley Farm Designs •

Artist Jessica Randa creates one-of-a-kind quahog jewelry.

Also available at What A Grind @The Hub in North Falmouth •

Elizabeth James Perry •

A member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, Perry creates wampum jewelry, a traditional craft passed down through generations.

Joan LeLacheur • 508-645-9954 •

Aquinnah resident creates jewelry from the ocean, sourcing such treasures as quahogs, conch, abalone, scallops and sea glass.

Lucia Moon Designs • 774-722 1965 •

Mother and daughter duo Martha and Mercy create some of the world’s most sought after shell jewelry. Their work can be found at galleries and boutiques across the Cape and Islands.

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