Aboriginal shell necklaces

Aboriginal shell necklaces

Shell necklace making is one of the few surviving traditional Aboriginal crafts in Tasmania. There are only a handful of Aboriginal women who are still actively making the necklaces. Their work can be seen on display in a special gallery in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery at Inveresk in Launceston, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, the Tiagarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Devonport and the Maritime Museum of Tasmania in Hobart. The Devonport Art Gallery also has a necklace in its collection that it will show you by appointment.

The impact of European colonisation in Tasmania was devastating for Aboriginal people. Violent skirmishes and often brutal killing characterised the early relationship between the invaders and the Indigenous people of Tasmania.

Eventually the majority of surviving Aboriginal people were forcibly relocated to the Furneaux group of islands off the North East coast of Tasmania, with most settling on Cape Barren and Flinders Island. European diseases spread and the original population of Aboriginal people (estimated to be several thousand) was almost wiped out in Tasmania in less than 100 years.

The shells are extremely precious, particularly the mother-of-pearl mareener shells that are now in short supply. They can only be collected at certain times during the year. It can take months or even years of work to produce one necklace, as it is a painstaking job to collect, clean and string the shells. Each maker has her own preferred way of stringing the shells in unique combinations and patterns.

The necklaces are of national significance to the Indigenous art of Australia and can also be seen on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

A growing interest in the necklaces has had some negative repercussions. There are recent reports that people with no cultural connection to the traditional craft are selling necklaces to an unsuspecting tourist market as authentic.

Here you can see and hear the Aboriginal necklace makers talk about their work and techniques. You can also take a virtual tour of some of the Tasmanian museums and galleries where their work is on display.

Shell necklace maker Muriel Maynard

I was born on Cape Barren Island. It's only a small island, and very isolated it was when I was growing up in the 30s and 40s. My mother died when I was only three. There were six of us on the island and we were fostered out to our aunties and relations.

Shell necklace maker Dulcie Greeno

I've lived near the sea most of my life. My dad was a fisherman. My husband was a fisherman and both my sons. Often I'd go out on the boat with my husband cray fishing and we'd be anchored off sheltered beaches for the night and we'd go ashore and collect shells.

Shell necklace maker Corrie Fullard

My favourite shell is the mareener (a greeny purple or blue shell with a mother-of-pearl finish when cleaned). In the majority of necklaces I make you'll always find a mareener shell. It's my favourite I suppose because it was my Mum and Dad's favourite shell.

Shell necklace maker Lola Greeno

I watched my mother making shell necklaces. She made them apparently before they were too many of us children. There were ten in my family. She made them in earlier times for pocket money helping to feed and clothe us kids. But then she gave it away for a few years, then she moved to Launceston.


Tasmanian wood design

Tasmania is not only home to a selection of unusual and precious timbers, but also to several people who make beautiful things from them.