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

2 thoughts on “The Kula model of jewellery exchange”

  1. Hi Kevin,

    I think that the idea that ownership of jewellery in the West is “final” may not be as cut and dried as you suggest. I think women often think of themselves as custodians rather than owners of jewellery that might have been passed through a family, and the question of how things may be inherited in a family is sometimes embedded in quite an elaborate pattern: pieces that might pass to a daughter in law on the marriage of a son, for example, or that might be passed from mother to daughter when the daughter reaches a certain age or passes through a specific rite of passage. I even know someone who co-owns a ring that is a family heirloom with her sister: it changes hands (literally) on New Year’s Day. So even though such rituals may not be embedded in wider socio cultural behaviours in the West, they are nevertheless well recognised.

    Happy New Year!


  2. Yes, the hierloom is certainly a traditional form of jewellery in the West that reflects the custodianship of the Kula. It would be interesting to have a survey of hierlooms today. I wonder how many people have them, and what they are. I suspect that they are much less frequent now. That may change one fine day.

    Thanks for the comment, Anne.

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