Beautiful Maireener Shells and Necklaces from Tasmania

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There are many species of beautiful yet very small sea shells found in our seas. Some of them are purple baby clams, bee hive snails, cebu beauty, money cowrie, and Babilonia Japonica, to name a few. They have been used in art and crafts in many maritime countries. The best known maireener shells from exotic Tasmania have been used in crafts for generations and are likely the most exquisite and prized amongst the small shells.

Tasmanian Aboriginal women traditionally collected maireener shells to fashion necklaces and bracelets. During  the earlier Victorian  period these  shells and necklaces were quite popular and were offered in their natural colors. It was in the 20th century Art Deco period when shells were dyed that the true reputation of maireener shells were expanded in fashion.

In Tasmania, necklace making by aboriginal women constituted their most significant cultural contribution and tradition. This practice continues by Aboriginal women whose families survived on the Furneaux Islands, handed down by elder women to maintain an important link with traditional lifestyle. Late in the nineteenth century a number of women aimed to keep this part of their traditional culture alive in order to allow their daughters and granddaughters to participate in their cultural heritage. Today, there are only a few Tasmanian Aboriginal women who maintain this art, but they continue to hand down their knowledge and skills to younger women in their community. Shell necklace manufacture continues to maintain links with the past but is expressed as a modern art form.

These Tasmanian tiny iridescent beauties are collected while attached to sea kelp. To process them requires few additional steps. First, they have to be boiled to remove the outer layer and expose their nacreous surface. Second was piercing holes at which point many would have been damaged or destroyed. It was very laborious and time consuming  work but it would be done with love for the sake of their daughters and grand daughters-such necklaces would be given on their wedding day. The famous maireener necklaces were eventually made not just for adornment, but also as objects to be traded with other sea and land  peoples for tools and other items needed in daily life and for important ceremonies.

This tradition is one of the few that has continued without interruption until today. Since 1803, European colonization of much of Tasmanian Aboriginal life and Heritage was unfortunately either destroyed or disrupted. My first vintage maireener necklace was acquired at the Portobello Market in London.

Since then I collected few more by buying them in various antique shops. Recently, I started to up-cycle the shells into more contemporary creations.

The few pieces I chose for this article are vintage shells in original dainty creations with few of my edgy up-cycled versions. My reason for working with these unusually small shells is first to display their fragile beauty. Second is to document them- because of their fragility I am afraid they will be the first ones to disappear due to unstoppable ocean acidification.

Born in Croatia, Sylvia Gottwald studied fine art and design in Italy and Canada prior to earning her Masters of Architecture from Harvard University and completing her post-graduate in City Planning at MIT. In 2000, following her long, successful career practicing architecture and urban planning locally and internationally, she turned her attention and efforts to the gems of the oceans.Ms. Gottwald transforms the natural beauty and iridescence of nacre/mother-of-pearl and pearls into contemporary wearable art. Her avant-garde designs integrate nacre with precious metals, semi-precious gems, and edgy modernmaterials such as rubber and steel. Her interest in nacre is not only it’s inherent beauty, but also the importance of oysters to our marine ecosystems. The pearly oysters filter polluting nitrogen and plankton, protecting the oceans, and adding to the sustainability of life on our planet. In addition to their precious nacreous shell, they create a mysterious gem- the pearl- the only gem created by a living organism. Ms. Gottwald’s growing list of published work includes the covers of European Vogue, Elle Decor, Ornament, Home & Design, exhibited at the Musée des Arts décoratifs, Palais du Louvre (Paris); Musée de la Nacre (Paris/Meru); Museum of Modern Art (New York City); Museum of Contemporary Art Kampa (Prague); Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC); and the International Museum. Photo: SYLVIA GOTTWALD, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, 2012. Photograph by Domagoj Blazevic. of Applied Arts (Turin).