One of things we love most about living in the southwestern United States are the ubiquitous bright colors. Be it pottery, spring wildflowers, turquoise skies and glorious sunsets; even our food is Instagrammable! The desert states don’t lack for color, and our jewelry takes it to the next level. Step into any jewelry store in Arizona (especially the Pickle Barrel Trading Post in Globe!) and you’ll see bright pops of color amidst a sea of shining sterling silver jewelry. The ever popular turquoise is dominant, though you’ll find red coral, purple sugilite, iridescent mother of pearl, and green gaspeite. Perhaps you’ve noticed a particular orange shade— a cheerful, saturated color which is warm, yet unfamiliar. Its attraction is amplified when mixed with other stones. What you’ve admired is a shell, Spondylus Varius, which is commonly known as Spiny or Thorny Oyster.

Spiny oysters are not actually oysters; they’re more closely related to scallops. They are bivalve mollusks who live the warm waters in the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) on the Baja Peninsula and thrive from North Carolina to Brazil. Their hinged shells have dangerous looking spines which serve as protection, giving them their name. Their colors range from light pink to brown, with orange a common choice. Colors vary from region to region, based on what the mollusks eat and the depth of water where they live. They are edible, but are used more frequently for the beauty of their shells.

Spiny oyster shell is used alone or with other stones in the design and creation of sterling silver jewelry.
Perhaps you’ve noticed a particular orange shade— a cheerful, saturated color which is warm, yet unfamiliar.

People have wondered how Native American tribes living in a desert region came upon seashells— or coral, for that matter. Although no one can say exactly when Southwestern tribes discovered these items, we can assume they were acquired through trade with the Spaniards. The Spanish may have introduced silversmithing to the Navajo, but the art of using items from nature, to adorn oneself with colors to rival nature, was a practice that had been going on long before the Spanish arrived.

Archeologists have found spiny oyster in their excavations throughout South America. It was used in artwork, jewelry, and occasionally as currency. Obviously, it was revered by many cultures in the past, but is still sought after today. Spiny oyster was harvested by free diving down to collect the bivalves. It is still done the same way today, although many divers use air tanks when diving. The way it’s collected often determines its price. The deeper and more dangerous to collect, the more expensive it will be.

Spiny oyster beads in multiple strands make a bold statement for the necklace wearer.
Beads in multiple strands show the array of warm colors in the spiny oyster family. Here, turquoise beads are added for additional interest.

Spiny oyster is plentiful, unlike ongoing ocean-warming concerns with coral. It’s found in white, pink, yellow, orange, red, purple, and a pleasing brown, with a depth of interesting striation; it adds a breathtaking contrast when paired with other stones. However, variations in its color allow for it to be utilized all on its own; orange and red set in luminous sterling silver are a show stopper. The Pickle Barrel Trading Post has a lovely selection of spiny oyster jewelry, set singly and with other stones. The rainbow colors of spiny oyster jewelry add yet another layer to the palette of the American southwest!

–Cameron Vines

–Photography by James Lindstrom

When in Arizona, visit us the Pickle Barrel Trading Post in Globe (approximately 90 minutes east of Phoenix), or call us at (928) 425-9282. Check out our online shop at
with over 1,000 exceptional items for sale. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter!