Shell Money Tradition Lives on in the Solomon Islands

May 22, 2015 · 3 min read

By Kiva Fellow Nelly Martin, in the Solomon Islands

I love collecting seashells. Even if I don’t plan on looking for them, I rarely manage to walk along a beach without picking up a few pieces along the way.

So when I arrived in the Solomon Islands and heard about “shell money,” I immediately wanted to learn more. I found out that one of the Kiva borrowers in the Solomon Islands makes shell money, so I knew I had to meet her…

Shell money is a traditional form of currency that was used in the Solomon Islands before bank notes were introduced. Some provinces still use shell money today, primarily for ceremonies, settling disputes, and bridal and land payments. It is beautifully crafted from seashells, often consisting of strings of differently colored shell-beads. For weddings and dowries it is carefully stitched together into ornamental costumes and headdresses.

Kiva borrower Cecilia is one of the artisans who keeps this tradition alive. When we visited Cecilia and her family on the outskirts of Honiara, they showed off some of their beautiful pieces and showed us step by step how shell money is made.

First, seashells are broken into small pieces roughly the same size.

Then a small hole is drilled into each piece so it can be strung up later.

Each piece is heated over a small stove and then cooled in water. The heat enhances the color of the shell, but one has to be careful not to overheat it, or it becomes dull.

Once the pieces have been threaded with string, the shells are smoothed and rounded.

Finally, the finished pieces are assembled into strings of shell money, decorative headdresses or ceremonial costumes.

The loan that Cecilia received enabled her to buy fresh supplies of seashells that she is turning into strings of shell money. The profits from her business help Cecilia meet her family’s daily expenses and over time she hopes to provide them with a better standard of living.

If you’d like to support an entrepreneur like Cecilia check out more Kiva loans from the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in Oceania.

Nelly Martin is a Kiva Fellow serving in Samoa and the Solomon Islands. Photographs in this story are by Nelly Martin. This post was compiled by Kiva intern Brianna Gillease.


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