The Pacific Ethnic Jewelry

Pacific ethnic jewelry, pacific jewelry designs, south pacific jewelry, handmade ethnic jewelry pacific northwest jewelryThe history of Pacific ethnic jewelry is truly remarkable and some of the stories are absolutely incredible. As with so many cultures, jewelry was as important, if not more important, as clothing in the Pacific. For one thing, the materials used in jewelry making, and even the jewelry itself, was often used as currency. In the beginning, the only materials that were unavailable was metal.

It was not used until after early Asian or later European contact. Therefore, most of the jewelry you’ll see from the Pacific is usually strung. Some of the materials readily available were coral, jade, bone, bamboo, teeth, shells, seeds, nuts and feathers. The gathering of these materials, which took considerable effort, was even considered dangerous, at times. This was caused by hostile neighbors, unpredictable trading partners, treacherous coral reefs and the hazards of open sea travel in small canoes. Men usually made these long and dangerous trading expeditions while the women worked closer to home, gathering on the reefs and foraging in the bush for the required materials needed for the Pacific ethnic jewelry.

A perfect example would be the story of the men of the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain. Nassa shells were used as a means of trading in this region. Habitants would collect Nassa shells in palm leaves or bamboo containers. These shells harvested live shellfish, but they stored them in their houses where they were prepared to endure the stink of decay in anticipation of the wealth to come. When the seas calmed, canoe traders came along the coast to the north to exchange goods for these shells. This trading took place in an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, sometimes even out at sea from canoe to canoe.

For the New Zealand Maori, nephrite became the ultimate material of prestigious weapons, tools and jewelry. It was so valued and treasured by the Maori Culture and since the source was limited to three main geological localities, sea travel to these sources was almost impossible along the rough weather coast of south Westland. Therefore, all the jade had to be carried out on the backs of men and women over the high passes of the Southern Alps. Braving ice, snow and freezing rivers and only dressed in light coats and plaited sandals, they used rope ladders to get across cliffs and reed rafts to cross larger rivers.

Odd materials used in Pacific ethnic jewelry were held in high esteem. Dog’s teeth were used as currency and worth more than any other animal teeth or shells. Even when incorporated into jewelry, they still retained their monetary value. Another interesting material of value was the boar’s tusks. Normal boar tusks were incorporated in jewelry and sometimes also had monetary value. I had to mention this because it’s just too cute! Pigs were highly treasured and a favorite boar might have its ear pierced so that it could wear a shell earring or piece of red cloth. Pigs with tusks that have grown into a full circle or even into a double circle were especially valuable.

Twisted cords of reddish brown flying-fox fur and beads of dull green jade (serpentine) also assumed special value. The sensual appeal of the shapes and textures of polished jade or large volumptuous cowrie shells was well recognized in many Pacific cultures. Fragility and ephemeral beauty were of utmost importance as they used feathers, precious shells and flowers. Pleasant scents and sounds made during movement were sometimes important reasons for choice of materials. Thus fresh flowers, fragrant grasses and herbs were added to body decoration as much for their aroma as for their pleasing appearance. For instance leg rattles of dog’s teeth were worn on the leg because they enjoyed the sound.

Glass trade-beads have become an important element of Pacific jewelry since the first arrival of Asian and European outsiders. Some very ancient beads found their way into the western fringes of the Pacific through Indonesia into western New Guinea and through the Philippine Islands into Micronesia. Old trade beads are usually seen as isolated single specimens incorporated into otherwise traditional jewelry. You could find them strung among drilled shell discs or inlaid in gum or resin. At one time glass beads on horsehair became popular. Cheap, brightly colored glass beads and tubes are still being brought into some islands today for use in Pacific ethnic jewelry.