Indigenous Jewellery and Accessory Design

Throughout human history, dress and decoration have always featured as important parts of celebrations and ceremonies. After all, who doesn’t love to dress up for special occasions? In comparison to today, most ancient cultures were far more elaborate with their use of body adornment. In traditional First Nations culture, body decoration was and still is an important part of ceremonies and other cultural practices.

Throughout Indigenous history very little adornment was worn during day-to-day activities. This included items such as simple headbands, arm bands and waist belts. However, for ceremonies a wide variety of adornments would be added, including beaded necklaces and headdresses. It was customary for special necklaces to be worn by both men and women during ceremonies relating to Fecundity. This is a practice that has been continued into contemporary Indigenous culture. The materials used to make these necklaces vary depending on what was available from region to region. Some of these materials include shells, feathers, grasses, reeds, plant seeds, dried fruit and snake vertebrae. A significant part of the necklace is the string of hair that is often added to these necklaces. It symbolised the interconnectedness of the community and family (Aboriginal Culture, 2017).

Armband of coiled plant fibres decorated with feathers, made by Mavis Warrngilna Ganambarr. ANMM Collection. Image sourced from MUSEAUM.

The Torres Strait Islands have particularly strong traditions of body decoration, often through their weaving traditions. Traditionally, natural materials that are readily available on the islands such as coconut leaves and pandanus would be used to make fishing nets, brackets, jewellery and other decorative items. The Torres Straits region has a unique cultural heritage with the first inhabitants believed to have migrated from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea 70,000 years ago - at a time when New Guinea was still attached to the Australian continent. The Torres Straits now have a unique cultural blend with Torres Strait Islander, Aboriginal, Papua New Guinean, Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Pacific Islander, European and other nationalities. This incredible diversity is largely due to the pearling industry which began in the 1860s. From this incredible diversity, unique jewellery traditions have been formed. Jewellery includes carved pearl shells, turtle shell neck pendants and wooden carvings (Childs, 2018). 

Dhari by Lama Pinau Ghee. Image sourced from National Gallery of Victoria.

Headdresses are an important part of Traditional Torres Strait Islander dress and ceremonies. Dhari is the Meriam Mir word for headdress and is used in the eastern islands. In the central and western islands where Lagaw Ya is spoken, the headdress is called Dhoeri. These headdresses are traditionally worn for dancing ceremonies and are both made and worn by men. They were traditionally made from Frigate Bird and Torres Strait Pigeon feathers; now they are made from a wide and often creative range of materials including heavy cardboard, plywood, chicken feathers and cane. When wearing the Dhari’s at night for performances, the dancers shake their heads which vibrates the spokes and causes a glorious shimmering effect (Queensland Museum, 2020). 

There are some incredible programs, art centres and galleries that work hard at keeping these adornment traditions alive through workshops and exhibitions. One such program is the Indigenous Jewellery Project (IJP). It is a nation-wide project that works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art centres all across Australia. The project consists of research, workshops, photography, films and exhibitions that aim to bring the world's oldest jewellery traditions into contemporary form. IJP was created in order to maintain and develop Indigenous jewellery makers practices through workshops, and to educate the public about the significance of Indigenous jewellery. Additionally, IJP works towards exhibiting in Aboriginal art galleries and contemporary art commercial and public sectors. Some of the IPJ’s latest workshops and exhibitions include Radiant Pavilion 2019, the Craft ACT, Kemmarre Arts and ANU SOAD workshops in 2018 and the Gamu Keub-Keub Project in 2018 (Mcculloch, 2019).

Matilda Nona, Emily Beckley, Traditional Bridal Pendants, oxidized bronze, silk thread. Gamu-KeubKeub Project, 2018. Photo: Melinda Young.

In 2018, IPJ collaborated with Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island to run a series of traditional jewellery workshops called the Gamu Keub-Keub (Body Adornment) Project. Gab Titui is a unique cultural centre that brings together many of the different art centres and artists from all across the Torres Strait Islands. Emily Childs from IJP talks further about the centres role within the Torres Straits:

Gab Titui Cultural Centre is a unique concept that was born out of a vision by Islander linguist and leader, the late Ephraim Bani. Originally designed as a keeping place for repatriated objects and artworks that had been taken to European museums, the center now encompasses a regional gallery, permanent gallery, museum storage place, shop, a café run as a social enterprise to train young people and runs a program of public workshops particularly in crafts, such as weaving and beading. - Emily Childs, 2018

Through the workshops they worked with traditional and contemporary materials and techniques such as wax, ‘Bush String’ which is a special weaving method and also wire work. These workshops were designed as a special space to share knowledge and create new and exciting works.

Jetty Love Collection by Grace Lillian Lee, 2016. Photo: Carly Keowski.

There are also many incredible Indigenous practitioners who combine traditional and contemporary techniques. Grace Lillian Lee is one such practitioner, she explores her Torres Strait Islander lineage through fashion. Lee studied fashion design at RMIT University, Melbourne and now creates works that explore traditional craft techniques within a contemporary fashion context. She is well known for her use of palm-leaf weaving techniques, which is affectionately known as “prawn-weaving” in the Torres Straits (Boyde, 2016). Grace Lee is the founder of First Nation Fashion + Design, a national industry body that nurtures, promotes and creates opportunities for First Nation fashion and design. Check out their instagram for the latest on Indigenous Fashion

It's wonderful to see the important Indigenous traditions of body decoration and jewellery making practices continue to thrive in contemporary times. There are many amazing practitioners out there who are continuing to foster participation in and appreciation of these artistic practices. Here at Yarn, we recognise the importance of these traditions because just like clothing, body decoration and jewellery plays an important role in expression of culture and identity.