The skull, which is the focal point of the work, is the universal symbol of death. The chronometer (the timepiece that resembles a pocket watch) and the gold oil lamp which has just been extinguished, mark the length and passing of life.
The shell (Turbinidae), which is a highly polished specimen usually found in south east Asia, is a symbol of wealth, as only a rich collector would own such a rare object from a distant land. Shells are also traditionally used in art as symbols of birth and fertility.
The books represent the range of human knowledge, while the musical instruments suggest the pleasures of the senses. Both are seen as luxuries and indulgences of this life.
The purple silk cloth is an example of physical luxury. Silk is the finest of all materials, while purple was the most expensive colour dye.
As a symbol, the Japanese Samurai sword works on two levels. It represents both military power and superior craftsmanship. These razor edged swords, which were handcrafted to perfection by skilled artisans, were both beautiful and deadly weapons.