Cowrie Shell Beads and Medallions

A few folks out there have expressed interest in trying their hand at making cowrie shell beads, so I thought that I would share some of the tips that I have developed along the way…

(Yes...anyone who sees you making these beads will be instantly convinced that you are insane for making something so utterly tiny!)

I have tried to write this so that anyone can follow it, even if they do not have any experience with Sculpey. If you have already worked with Sculpey somewhat...you can probably skim through some parts. : )

And what is Sculpey?
Sculpey is one brand name for a polymer clay. It can be worked in basically the same way that you would "regular" clay, but it is fired to hardness in a kitchen oven, or toaster oven, at 275 degrees, F.
There are several other brands of polymer clays out there, and different types of each brand. (Some are more flexible when cured, some are stronger, some are easier to work with for small details, etc...) They all have the same general properties, so you don't really need "Sculpey" in particular. I experimented with a few different ones until I found a mix that I liked. (So far as I have found in my experimentation, you can mix brands/varieties/colors without a problem)

And now...getting started!

Take a bit of Sculpey. I use a mix of flesh colored Premo Sculpey, because it is stronger than regular Sculpey, and white Sculpey III, for the color. When you mix them in about a 1:1 ratio, you get a strong, white mix. Mix it until it is one uniform color, and there are no flesh colored streaks.

Roll the clay into a log. You will not need much. Keeping the log short (about 2 inches long at the most) makes it easier to keep it a uniform thickness. Roll the log until it is about 2mm (?) in diameter.

With an exacto knife...chop off tiny slices. I always have to check to see what size I need by making one or two test slices and rolling them into a bead shape to see what size it turns out to be. Then I slice the entire log(s). Usually it is easier to slice enough for 2 or 4 beads per slice, and then go back and cut each slice in half, or quarters...rather than trying to slice the log thin enough to use one whole slice per bead. When you are finished slicing, you will have a whole bunch of practically microscopic white bits! : )

(This part is for making single shell beads.)

Now, pick a color clay (again, use a mix of Premo and Sculpey III) for the background of the bead...make a log out of it, and slice. For the background, you will need pieces approximately two or three the size of the white bits...

Get some thin wire...I use 28 or 30 gauge...and cut it into approximately 2-3 inch strips. You will want one strip of wire per bead that you are making. You can use these strips over and over, so save them at the end!

Take a background color piece, and roll it into a ball, then squooosh it slightly into an oval. Run a piece of wire through it, through the pointed ends, and then flatten slightly. You should now have a flat oval with a wire running through the length of it, about 1mm thick(or less), 1mm wide, and 2mm long. Bake this for 10 minutes, at 275.

NOTE ON BAKING: Make sure you thoroughly preheat! When you first turn on the oven (I use a toaster oven...) the heating elements fire up to a high temp in order to get the inside quickly heated...if you have your beads in there at that time...they WILL burn. Once the oven has reached an even temp, and the elements are not glowing red (at least in the toaster oven they stop glowing red)...THEN it is safe to put the beads into the oven.

After the 10 minutes (times may vary slightly in your oven) take out the beads and let them cool. They should be hard to the touch if they have cured properly.

Now, you need to make the cowrie shell part. Leaving the background color bead on the wire, take a teeny-tiny bit of the same color of unbaked clay, and spread a very, very thin layer onto one flat side of the bead. Reason is…you need the white shell to stick to the background. Unbaked clay sticks to baked clay, but only if you smoooosh (more technical jargon!) it together firmly. If you try to smoosh the unbaked white bead directly to the baked background enough to stick, it is difficult to keep the shape of the shell.

So, if you smoosh a bit of unbaked background color clay onto the baked background first, then the unbaked white shell clay will stick easily to the unbaked bit now on the background. (I hope that makes sense!)

The much easier alternative to this: Buy some Liquid Sculpey. It comes in a bottle (there are two sizes) with a long, narrow spout, and is wonderful stuff!! You can put a tiny drop of it on the baked background bead, and the white shell will stick just fine. I have heard that using a drop of superglue may also work for sticking unbaked to baked clay, or epoxies…but I haven’t tried them.

Back to the shell… : ) Roll your bit of white into an oval, and press it gently onto the background bead. (which is still on the wire, and now has a very thin layer of either uncured clay, or liquid sculpey on top of it.) Flatten slightly, it should now be stuck firmly in place. It should also be big enough to almost cover the background, but not quite….

Take a dull needle, or sharp toothpick, etc…and draw/press a crease lengthwise down the shell’s oval. Then press a few crosslines to imitate the slightly jagged edge that the shell has. (Looking a picture of a real shell, or an actual shell will let you see just what I mean…)

Stick it back in the preheated oven for another 10 minutes. (Your bead should still be on the wire.)

CAREFULLY slide the bead off of the wire.

Now the tricky part! : ) Take the very thinnest beeding needle that you can find…and then go find one even thinner! Beading needles come in sizes around 11, 13, and 15. If you can find a size 15...I suggest using that. Thread the needle. Fasten your thread to the backside of halter, and pull the thread up through to the front side, so that it is positioned where you want the first bead. Thread the bead onto the needle, pulling VERY slowly, and evenly. I usually try to hold the back of the bead a bit, to provide a little pressure against the pressure of the needle inside. It is very easy at this point to have the bead split wide open by the needle…and then you have to start all over! I insert the needle into the bead far enough for it to stick out the other end just a little bit, and then I use my needle-nose pliers to pull it the rest of the way through. (Be careful not to snap the needle off at the tip with the pliers, which is very easy to do accidentally.) The pliers give you a steadier, and stronger pulling action, which helps keep the bead from splitting.

Once the bead is pushed all the way down the thread to the halter, I put some superglue on the back of the bead and press the bead to the halter. Then push the needle through to the back of the halter again, anchoring the bead. Make a little half knot to anchor the thread on the back of the halter before moving on to the next bead’s position. Pull thread to the front…and thread on another bead…etc, etc….

I use superglue as well as the thread to 1) strengthen the bead a bit more, and 2) to make sure it stays in place while I am pushing the needle/thread through to the back of the halter. Since it has both glue and thread anchoring it…it is not going to fall off! And hopefully it will not split either.

Ta-daaaaaa…..you have just completed ONE WHOLE BEAD!!!!!!!

To make a four shell (or more) medallion, it is basically the same thing. Make a round (instead of oval) back and bake. I think mine are usually around 2 1/2mm in diameter. Then, add 4 shells in a sort of cross/or "x" pattern, leaving a small bit in the very center of the medallion empty…where you will later put in the final colored bead. Then crease/texture each cowrie shell and bake.

After the 4-shell bead has baked and cooled the second time, you are ready for the last bit of added clay. (If you try to add the center bit before you bake the shells…it usually is more trouble than it is worth to keep everything in the right shape.)

I put a drop of Liquid Sculpey in the center before I add the colored ball…but if you don’t have any LS, the center bit of clay is a small enough bit to stay put in the hole created by the ring of shells, without needing the layer of uncured clay that you use to attach the cowries to the flat medallions. After adding the Liquid Sculpey, add a tiny bit/ball of colored clay, in the center of the "X" of shells. I also press the end of my toothpick slightly into the top of the center ball, to give it a little texture, and to press it firmly down. Then bake it one final time. (all baking sessions are around 10 minutes.)

To make breastcollar medallions…I use a larger background circle, (7 - 8mm, ? ) a ring of about 12 shells, and a ring of 5 center bits, and then one more bit of another color inside that ring…

Hopefully, my descriptions make a little bit of sense. : ) Feel free to email me with any further question you might have. Or, if anyone has any tips/techniques/shortcuts…I would love to add them!

I will also try to get some pictures to go with the descriptions...but it might be a little (or, LOOOONG....) while until I get the time for that... : )

Hope this helps!!

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