Tag Archives: gift

The Kula model of jewellery exchange



Non-western jewellery provides intriguing possibilities for contemporary ornament. In 1920, the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski published an account of an elaborate jewellery trading network in eastern New Guinea, known as Kula.

Kula entails the exchange of two different sets of ornament. In a clockwise direction, long necklaces of red spondylus shell (soulava) travel from villages to village. In the opposite direction travel bracelets of white shell (mwali). When someone receives one of these ornaments as a gift, they are then indebted until they can reciprocate with the alternative good.

Though an ornament can be ‘owned’ by an individual, its destiny is to circulate through the region. Malinowsky makes the comparison with the English Crown Jewels that whose value lies in their symbolic rather than aesthetic function. He compares the ornament to a trophy that is won in a competition, but will eventually move on to the next winner in due course.

Thinking of the Kula sheds an interesting light on our economy of jewellery. In a Western society, ownership is final. An object can be exchanged for money, but we don’t tend to think of ourselves as a temporary custodian of our things. We own things for life, unless we decide otherwise.

So could a contemporary jeweller build into their work a principle of exchange? Perhaps their work creates a network of owners who can circulate jewellery between themselves?

  • Bronislaw Malinowski Argonauts Of The Western Pacific: An Account Of Native Enterprise And Adventure In The Archipelagoes Of Melanesian New Guinea  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987 (orig. 1922)
  • Roger Niech and Fuly Peraira Pacific Jewellery And Adornment Auckland: David Bateman, 2004