Picture the shimmer of sunlight sprinkled over the surface of a calm ocean. Capiz shell jewelry allows us to keep this breathtaking beauty of the Philippine Islands within reach.
Scientists name it the Placuna Placenta; internationally, it is the Windowpane Oyster; in the Philippines, it’s called Pios in Capiz Province of the Western Visayas Region and Lampirong in regions speaking Hiligaynon or Cebuano. For many Filipinos, it’s called the capiz shell and it recalls treasured memories.
Capiz shells were a durable and widely available alternative to glass. This window remains intact in the home of renowned painter and activist, Juan Luna, in Badoc, Ilocos Norte.
I remember a university trip touring ancestral homes across Ilocos, experiencing for the first time what was once my Lolo’s home region. Sunshine filtered in through small squares of capiz, lighting rooms partially in sepia.
Filipina-Canadian writer Mikaela describes snowy Christmases visiting her cousins, how the sight of their capiz shell parol in the window always brought a smile to her face. How it reminds her of cousins in the Philippines, almost a world away.
Capiz shell earrings, designed and handcrafted in Cebu, Philippines by eco-ethical fashion brand Island Girl.
Capiz shell jewelry is just one of the infinite applications of the coveted material. The abundance of capiz shells in the Philippines has brought it into every part of our culture. We built places of worship with it; we decorate our homes with it; and, we even cook with the meat harvested from it!
The History of Capiz Shells in the Philippines
When you consider the natural wonders and biodiversity of the Philippine Islands, it’s no surprise that one of its most recognizable handcrafts is a reflection and a product of its bountiful waters.
Philippine historians trace the popularity of capiz shells to the 1860 edition of “Vocabolario de la lengua tagala”, the first dictionary of the Tagalog language. Within it, the entry for Capiz reads la ventana. Window.
During Spanish colonization, churches and homes were built using capiz shells as a substitute for glass.
Pre-colonially, seashells were used widely in building weapons, decorating clothing, and trading goods.
Who’s Selling Seashells?
Placuna placenta, a bivalve mollusk, can be found all over the Philippines, specifically in coves, lagoons, and estuaries where fresh meets salt water. They can be harvested by handpicking in shallow, muddy shores or diving in deeper waters.
Capiz shell has many applications. Its meat can be cooked in various recipes (even adobo!), while its shells are crafted into chandeliers, lampshades, lanterns, jewelry boxes, picture frames, trays, partitions, paneling一if you can design it, it’s probably been made! The seashell is even an ingredient in less glamorous products: chalk, soldering lead, and paint.
Placuna Placenta, or capiz shell, is a bivalve mollusk abundant in the Philippines. Photo by Daderot.
Cebu, an island in the center of the Philippine archipelago, is the heart of the nation’s shellcraft industry.
Lush with local talent and natural resources, Cebu is where eco-ethical fashion brand Island Girl employs up to 20 artisan communities in handcrafting accessories and jewelry.
High demand for placuna placenta, both locally and internationally, renders the mollusk at-risk of over-harvesting, which is why Island Girl commits to sourcing its natural and local materials in ways that don’t disrupt the environment.
Island Girl sources their capiz from a shell culture farm, never from the wild.
Co-founder Janice Chua has said, “Producing natural material fashion accessories… allow wealth to trickle down to the grass root communities. The material passes through the hands of many in the process of its transformation.”
The Art Of Capiz Shell Jewelry
The process of capiz-crafting typically starts the same, whether you’re making a lampshade or a pair of earrings. The harvested mollusk is left to dry so the shell naturally opens up and its meat is removed. Next, the empty seashells are soaked to remove any impurities and dirt.
Once clean, the capiz shells are cut into the desired shapes.
To transform nature’s placuna placenta into jewelry, a few more steps must be taken. Island Girl, in particular, goes to lengths to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the capiz shell.
Island Girl bakes their capiz shells.
In its raw form, the windowpane oyster is translucent, practically see-through. Once the capiz shell is baked, it becomes opaque, without losing its pearlescent shine.
This is also the part of the process where other craftspeople might bleach, dye, or paint their capiz shells depending on the intended design. Island Girl will sometimes bake their capiz shells for longer to achieve smokey, earthy tones.
In its raw form, capiz shell is translucent. To enhance its natural beauty, Island Girl artisans bake the shells until opaque or smokey.
Artisans continue to craft and assemble the capiz shells into earrings, necklaces, or even hand clutches.
To finish, Island Girl seals their capiz shell accessories in a thin layer of resin so they can be worn for many years to come.
Capiz shells are a ubiquitous part of Filipino culture, to wear them in jewelry allows us all to carry a piece of the homeland anywhere and always.
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