The Pacific Islands are some of the most overlooked creative hotspots in the world, with the blend of Polynesian tribes and cultures having produced unique ornamental accessories from as early as 3000 BC, when the Austronesian people started moving throughout Southeast Asia. Much of the very early jewellery was made for religious purposes, using local materials sourced naturally. Popular pieces such as the Fijan whale tooth necklace and Solomon Islands turtle shell Kap Kap (a type of pendant) are perhaps most well known, although shells, stone, bush fibre, and bone were also used.
When European missionaries flooded the region, Polynesian tribes introduced more glass and trade beads into their works. However, unlike many African tribes, these new materials were secondary, with natural and locally sourced options remaining widely used. In fact, many pieces today are still created from natural materials, especially for jewellery that’s designed and manufactured for local, non-commercial purposes.
However, while material use has been easy to pin down, the exact cultural importance of jewellery amongst the Polynesian tribes is a little more complex. With more than 1000 distinct islands across the region, jewellery has long held different purposes in different areas. What we do know, however, is that many larger pieces were designed as symbols of power - whether that’s physical power, social status, or financial power.
Symbols of Power
In Papua New Guinea especially, elaborate, larger-than-life headdresses have traditionally been used to demonstrate power or authority, and these headdresses were often created from feathers, particularly from the native Bird-of-Paradise. This association between eye-catching feathers and authority is something that has carried over to Western culture, with feathered necklaces often worn as statement pieces today.
Across many Polynesian tribes, jewellery has also been used to communicate power in terms of fertility, signifying a woman’s power to reproduce. One of the most well known symbols of fertility across the Pacific Islands is the Hei-Tiki (or Tiki for short), worn by the New Zealand Maori. Traditionally made from pounamu stone - renowned for its attractive green colouring - the Tiki has inspired many of today’s designers who use the same shade to give off powerful feelings of aptitude, competency, and capability. That’s why so many popular pieces today are green, with emerald green necklaces and jade-hued earrings becoming essential must-haves in many jewellery collections – and something that you’ll see gracing the catwalks and front rows season after season.
The Polynesian Jewellery of Today
What’s especially interesting about the jewellery of the Polynesian tribes today is that while it no longer holds quite the same cultural significance in the 21st century, it’s still heavily symbolic of the Pacific cultures. The Hawaiian Lei, for example, was once used as a way to show rank amongst the monarchs. Today, it’s a symbol of love, honour, and peace, and closely associated with the islands’ relaxed, laid back, welcoming vibe. It has influenced many modern pieces, with flower necklaces and floral accessories carrying the same sort of warm message, and helping the traditions of the Pacific Islands and the native Polynesian tribes to stay alive and prominent in today’s world.