Malaita Island, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands Melanesia

Armbands [ambegwaro] c.1900 Materials & Technique: sculptures, fibre, white shell (arca granosa), red shell (spondylus) and black shell (mussel)
Dimensions: 18.0 h x 12.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2008
Accession No: NGA 2008.806.A-B
  • Worn on the upper arm, sometimes on the wrist and occasionally just above the ankles, this pair of shell-bead armbands rank among the finest and most valuable of traditional adornments of the south-eastern Solomon Islands.

    Each minute shell bead has been hand-crafted, individually drilled, and then polished to a level of perfection before being entwined with bush fibre string, a technique that joins the beads in delicate slanting arrangements.

    Strings of these beads were created by women in villages along the Langalanga Lagoon on the west coast of Malaita and acted as a form of currency across the south-eastern Solomon Islands.

    Great care and attention was taken in creating armbands such as these, for they were the equivalent of very expensive jewellery, a display of the wearer’s wealth. The currency value of each armband was determined by the tightness in production of the geometric designs and the richness of coloration of the red shells; in the early twentieth century a foot length of red shell beads was worth around a shilling in Malaita, a considerable sum. Each armband has four fibre strings coming from the sides to tie them tightly around the arm.

    It has been suggested that the central red designs are abstractions of fish. While armbands are predominantly a prestigious male ornament, women have been known to wear them at special occasions such as their wedding.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2011
    From: Crispin Howarth with Deborah Waite Varilaku: Pacific arts from the Solomon Islands National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2011