Strings of polished shell beads, known as shell money, have been one of the most important cultural items across South East and East Asia. Used as currency and in traditional ceremonies, shell money has been made by hand for generations. Cash money has now become the dominant currency across much of Asia however one of the last remaining places to continue to produce shell money is the Solomon Islands.
For the 2000 Langalanga people of the central west coast of Malaita Island in the Solomon Islands, shell money is still a fundamental part of their culture. It is used as a bridal gift, at funerals, and to purchase important items from other tribes such as pigs, canoes and yams.
Women and children lead the process of producing shell money with assistance from the men. From the collection of the shells, to shaping, colouring and polishing, the entire production process can take up to three weeks to complete.
Four species of shells are collected by divers (usually boys or young men) to be shaped into shell money. The women then dry the shells and break them into pieces, fashioning them slowly into round disks of about one centimetre in diameter.
A hole is then drilled in the centre of the shell pieces (known as the oga process) to create beads that can be strung together. They are then ready to be polished and coloured. Men and boys polish the beads using grinding stones - this is the hardest physical work in the process and results in smooth beads around five millimetres in diameter.
During the para process the beads are coloured by heating them on a hot stone. When the ke’e shell is heated, it changes from purple to orange, with the colour of the shell representing its value and price. If heated too much the shells will turn white and be considered useless.
Now the beads are finally complete, they are threaded onto strings up to 7 feet long for use as shell money.
Solomon Islands Women’s Shell Money Association
Traditionally a form of currency, this traditional practice is now used by the Solomon Islands Women’s Shell Money Association to produce a range of jewellery products. Established in 2014, the association supports 300 Langalanga women and their families living on remote outer islands of the Solomon’s, by promoting the production and sale of shell money jewellery.
Pacific Artisan is proud to include a beautiful selection of bracelets, earrings and necklaces made by the Solomon Islands Women’s Shell Money Association in our fair trade, ethical jewellery collection. You can see them here
Goto A. 1996. Shell money production in Langalanga, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands, SPC Traditional Marine Resource Management and Knowledge Information Bulletin #7