Antique jewellery dealer Anne Schofield recently exhibited a collection of rare Aboriginal shell necklaces from Tasmania, which were on show in June at her Woollahra gallery.

A tradition of adornment extends from the oldest living culture on Earth, and continues unbroken to this day. That’s what excites me about Tasmanian shell necklaces. My love of these delicate jewels began back in the 1990s when I first saw a display of specimens dated about 1870 at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston.

Tasmanian maireener
shell necklaces in various
colours. Collection: Anne
Schofield Antiques.
Detail showing the
iridescent maireener shells.

A visit to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s (TMAG) exhibition taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country, which ran from October 2022 to May 2023, renewed my respect for these beautiful and rare items, and for their makers. My interest in these beautiful and rare items led to my 2007 exhibition of 30 antique and contemporary Aboriginal shell necklaces. Later in 2014 my fascination with these works was rekindled when I saw an exhibition at Object Gallery Sydney of Lola Greeno: Cultural Jewels. Lola Greeno (b 1946) is recognised as the matriarch of the revival of the art of making shell necklaces, a traditional cultural practice that was passed down to her by her mother Dulcie Greeno.

taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country showed Aboriginal artefacts which had been collected by early explorers and colonials, then taken back to Britain and Europe as souvenirs. The TMAG curators had requested their return for this special exhibition and are hoping to negotiate a future permanent return to country. This historical material was complemented by new works.

I was particularly impressed by the lovely shell necklaces held by the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and National Museums Scotland, which are in perfect condition after 200 years! I have since learned that 13 Tasmanian shell necklaces were exhibited at the Great Exhibition held in London 1851 at the Crystal Palace. Others were displayed at later intercolonial and international exhibitions including Calcutta in 1884.

The stories behind the tradition of making shell necklaces fascinates me. It is a long and arduous process and requires great patience, knowledge and skill, which is being passed down from mothers to daughters in families from the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait (Flinders and Cape Barren Islands). Lola Greeno writes in her book Cultural Jewels’

Tasmanian necklaces of iridescent maireener shells. Collection: Anne Schofield Antiques.
Charles Woolley (1834–1922),
photographer, Truganini (c 1812–1876)
wearing a shell necklace, c 1866.

Living shell collection requires arduous cleaning processes, sometimes taking months to remove the animal, and with maireeners there is the additional, secret means of removing the outer surface to reveal the inner, magically opalescent sub-surface of the shell, the gem within.

This necklace work involves four separate processes:

  1. Collecting the specific shells at certain times of the year, with certain tides and climatic conditions.
  2. Cleaning to remove the outer layer to expose the brilliant, vibrant colours of the shells. In former times this would have been done by burning grass over wood embers, when the action of the pyroligneous acid removed the outer coating from the shell, but today they are cleaned with a diluted chemical solution, although Lola says ‘we don’t reveal our exact solution methods.’
  3. Piercing the shells. Originally the women punctured the shells using the eye tooth of a wallaby and threaded them with kangaroo sinew or plant fibre.
  4. Ordering and stringing the shells. Today they use cotton, nylon or fine wire. Pakana artist and academic Julie

Gough says in the catalogue of the 2016 TMAG exhibition kanalaritja – An Unbroken String

Tasmanian Aboriginal shell work is unique, the patterns and shell types indicate the maker and also reflect a place or places, the seashores from whence they came, and the knowledge of collecting and making. These necklaces offer insight into how to do things the right way, in slow time, with care. This is a gift not only for the makers, but to those who hold them. Those wearing them are our cultural ambassadors. They reveal by carrying our culture in this way their respect for our people, and for our Ancestors who ensured our survival and of cultural practices, including shell stringing.

Anne Schofield AM has operated her jewellery gallery in Queen Street, Woollahra NSW since 1970 and wrote Australian Jewellery 19th and 20th Centuries with Kevin Fahy, published in 1990. Her contact information is on her website:

Article courtesy Australiana Magazine

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