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Dress Shells & Elk Teeth

Elk teeth, cowrie shells and dentillium shells have been used for the decoration of traditional Native American
women’s capes, dresses and other craft items from old times to the very modern present.

Email Chris to order of if you have any questions Click here.


In the old days it was a sign of wealth to have the top half of your dress covered with elk teeth.
Only two “ivories” could be had from each elk hunted.
As a result elk teeth were highly prized for their decorative value.
Even today these elk “ivories” are very much in demand.
Genuine elk teeth are like the “gold standard” of Native American craft items.
Each year the price of a matched pair goes up and up,
and they are not readily available.
You have to be lucky to be at the right place at the right time to run into someone
who is willing to sell or trade a pair of genuine elk teeth.
Most hunters today, whether native or non-native,
treasure the ivories for themselves or for their families.

This picture is of Chris Tracy at the San Luis Rey Mission Powwow Grand Entry 2003.

Her Northern Traditional regalia pictured here, has imitation plastic elk teeth. There are over 600 on the top portion of the dress.

native american dress

You might be surprised to know that the “imitation elk tooth”
existed in the old days too! Examples of carved bone (imitation)
elk teeth have been found on antique dresses and pieces of regalia.

As a result of their scarcity, today there are several styles of PLASTIC,
CARVED BONE and SIMULATED ELK TEETH available on the market.
At any given Powwow you will see Native American women in beautiful
traditional dresses adorned in these IMITATION ELK TEETH,
and of course you still see dresses adorned in REAL ELK TEETH too!

Dancing Bear is happy to supply a variety of “imitation” elk teeth for your craft use on dresses,
ear rings, necklaces, hair ties, bandoliers, bags, breastplates, etc.

Plastic Elk tooth
Molded plastic to look like a real tooth.
1 top hole, 1" x 3/4" approx

Northern style, 1 top hole
1 3/8" x 7/8" approx.

Carved Bone Elk Teeth
bone teeth beads
Hand-carved, antiqued finish,
1 top hole. 1 1/4" x 7/8" approx.
Natural color, golden ivory color,
2 holes on top. 1 1/4" x 5/8" approx.


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The Money Cowrie was the shell used on old time Native American dresses.
It has a yellow ochre color and is characterized by the dimpled bottom of the shell.
One hole was drilled on the narrow top for attachment to dresses and other items.
Long before European contact, these shells were an important trade item in North America
which were brought inland from the Pacific coast by Native American traders.
They were rare, and had a high trade value. Thus the name “Money” Cowrie.

The Ring Top Cowrie is a modern import from Southeast Asia which has become very popular
in the 20th Century through the present. It is characterized by an orangish line which “rings”
the top of the shell. Thus the name “Ring Top”.
They are a grayish on top with a cream-colored edge and underside.

purple cowriecowrie ring topcowrie money
Purple Cowrie, Ring Top Cowrie, Money Cowrie


Ring Top Cowrie

Money Cowrie
We have one size of shells:
3/4"-1" average

Purple Cowrie

Money Cowrie Slices
These large slices are used for necklaces
or for stitching down on leather.

Snake Head Cowrie, drilled
A beautiful brown mottled shell with purple inside.

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These are available exclusively through Dancing Bear Indian Trader.
They are cut from ring top and money cowries to reveal the rich, purple color on the inside of the shell.
These rounded discs, with a center hole like a sequin, can be stitched down in a line on buckskin
like white clam shell hishi. The effect is amazing! Contact us to order this item.


Ring Top Cowrie Sequin, small 7mm

Ring Top Cowrie Sequin, medium 10mm


The dentillium shell is another old time trade item of great value that made its way from the Pacific
Northwest east to the interior of North America. It was the most prized of the trade shells.
A dress with a full cape of dentillium shells was said to be worth several horses in trade.
To complete her outfit, a woman might wear one or two pairs of long, multi-tiered dentillium earrings.
Dentillium chokers were also worn by both men and women.

On the Northern Plains, besides on dresses, dentillium shells were often stitched onto dress sleeves
and hems in various patterns as decorative motifs.

The old time dentillium has a smooth, shiny surface and is a golden color which can vary from whitish to
cream to brownish. Unfortunately these old time shells are next to impossible to get.

The ridged, white dentillium from Southeast Asia is the shell that has been readily available in recent years.
It varies in length from ½” to 2” (premium size). It is fairly inexpensive, but select, long shells can be pricey. The drawback with ridged dentillium is that they are brittle and often break in pieces after they have been made into something.

Recently a smooth, white, stronger dentillium has become available. It is also imported from Asia.
It tends to be much longer on average than the ridged dentillium, and the price is not too high.
There seems to be a resurgence of dentillium dress capes on the powwow circuit.
Native American women are starting to use this smooth dentillium for dress capes
as it makes up very nicely and does not cost too much.

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Smooth Dentillium

These are a recent import from India and are a great substitute for the difficult,
if not impossible to get old time dentillium. They are much stronger than the ridged dentillium
and tend to run long, most being 1-1/4” to 1-1/2” inches in length or more.
Traditional ladies have been using them to make their beautiful dress capes.
They work up quickly with stunning results.

Dentillium Cape making tip: Sort the shells by length. Start with shorter shells around the neck.
Gradually work up in size as you go so the outside rows have the longest shells.
If you start with the longest shells at the neck, you will end up wasting a lot of shells.
Use a heavy cotton thread for sewing the shells as their sharp edges will cut thinner threads like Nymo or sewing threads. Use a double mercerized crochet thread (it won’t shrink) that is fairly thick.
This thicker thread will hold up for a long time.

dentilliumgreen dentillium
Necklace Dentillium
Large White Smooth Dentillium, Large Green Ridged Dentillium
RARE.. not avaliable at this time.

Smooth Dentillium
100 pc/pkg

1000 pcs (10 x 100pc)

Ridged Dentillium
Small pieces
½”, ¾” ~ 1”
1 oz. pkg
8 oz. pkg

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