Selling Yarns


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A guide to pricing shell and seed necklaces

Selling Yarns 1: Australian Indigenous textiles and good business in the 21st century

August 2006

Jeweller Alice Whish discusses a methodology for pricing shell and seed necklaces based on her experiences working with Indigenous artists in Maningrida, Elcho Island and Milingimbi.


From 2004 to 2006 I worked with Indigenous artists Rose Mamuniny and Mavis Ganambarr with the support of an Australia Council Development Grant. As a practicing jeweller I was asked to facilitate necklace making workshops at Maningrida, Elcho Island and Milingimbi. These workshops aimed to assist indigenous artists to realise a more commercially viable product by exploring and strengthening threading structures. Subsequent trips to Arnhem Land have given me an insight into some of the many issues that affect the selling, valuing and making of shell and seed necklaces.

Each of these art centres appear to have similar problems including the quality of threading materials, poorly made commercial catches and a lack of valid pricing and valuation methods. Issues that contributed to devaluing the work commercially were; the use of fishing line which easily breaks and stretches, to bracelets without catches being too large to be worn on the arm, and choker necklaces that did not fit over the head. Other issues such as the use of non-standard catches which varied in both quality and particular joining methods further contributed to this.

To increase the commercial value of these items it was necessary to improve the quality of the final product. This could be achieved by using a stronger thread and designing a quality catch that could be easily fastened. One factor where significant improvements can be made is to create a guide for valuing and pricing shell and seed necklaces. This guide needs to be easy to use so that consistent pricing of similar items can be achieved. A consistent and transparent method of pricing has a better chance of returning a fair price to the artist for their creative work. The proposed Necklace Pricing Guide (see Attachment A) that I have developed attempts to provide this function as a quick and user friendly tool.

The Necklace Pricing Guide arranges necklaces in terms of their value through materials, pattern, labour and historical significance. It will provide a means to examine and compare the value of one necklace against another.

The shell and seed necklaces of Arnhem Land are varied in length, design, and threading technique. They use complex patterns of different shells combined with seeds, grass, crab claw and other natural materials. Some use one type of seed in a variety of colours others are divided by small sections of shells or seeds.

Shells of good colour, e.g. reds, purples and pinks, require travel outside the community to gather from homelands. They are not as easily obtained as the grey, black, and yellow which at Elcho Island can be found at main beach, a short walk from the art centre. There is limited research into the necklace shell beds off Arnhem Land. It is not known if the taking of thousands of young hard fresh shells for necklace making is impacting on the shell bed populations as a whole. In addition some shells, taken live off the beach, have their point removed using a file by the maker in order to make a hole for threading. Shell experts often mistakenly classify these damaged shells as shells that have been collected dead because the shell top has been worn off.

Nearly all the necklaces made by artists today are made with the intention of being sold commercially. At Elcho and Maningrida artists buy their own threading materials, finance their trips out of community to collect a variety of shells and seeds. They sell their works for prices ranging from $10 to $35. Maningrida Arts and Culture sell 25 to 30 necklaces a week, (Kohen, 2006). Necklaces continue to remain the cheapest item for sale and their makers continue to receive little monetary reward for each item they sell.

Some necklaces have characteristics that are historical such as necklace length, shark vertebra, and particular shells. Traditionally the choice of material for threading shark vertebrae and shark teeth was string made of bark fibre. The finest string is made from the fig tree, (Ficus virens) and a fine but more fibrous, scratchy string is also made from the kurrajong tree (Brachychiton megaphyllus). (Mamuniny, 2005) The bark fiber was prepared by stripping, soaking in water, hammering and finally double plied into thread. The thread is plied by rolling the hand and thumb across the thread on ones thigh. The thread used in the construction is important and ultimately determines the sale and life of the necklace. A broken necklace brings disappointment for all concerned in the process, from creating and assembling the tiny shells to wearing.

Bark string for threading has largely been replaced by the popular use of fishing line across Arnhem Land. It is available in a variety of thickness and can be easily knotted and threaded through a fine needle (Hamby, 2000). This has enabled smaller and finer shells and seeds to be threaded in a variety of patterns using multiple strands resulting in threading techniques of 3, 4 and 6 threads on a single necklace.

The use of fishing line has its disadvantages. The line is known to stretch over time leaving unsightly lengths of line between the shells and seeds. To avoid this problem the line needs to be over knotted. However this method leaves sharp scratchy points of nylon which are uncomfortable against the neck when the necklace is worn. A stretched thread line increases the likelihood of breakage and unraveling and subsequent, dispersal and loss of shells and seeds. An unusual threading material used on occasion is dental floss which knots easily, doesn't slip and can also be purchased at the community store.

The problems associated with nylon fishing line and dental floss has led some artists to use nylon coated steel cable. This material is strong and available in a range of thicknesses and colours. It is ideal for heavy necklaces of multiple threads and fine shells and seeds. The use of cable necessitates the use of new joining methods and techniques. The cable ends must be fastened by crimping or finished with a catch, requiring fine pliers and a little practice. These items are not readily available at community stores. So at this stage their use is managed and determined by staff at the individual art centres. Maningrida and Elcho Island art centres both provide kits of tools as well as threading and catch materials for use by makers visiting the centre and working on site.

If the necklace is a short length it needs to have a functioning catch. Rose Mamuniny, Mavis Ganambarr and Elsie Marmanga use handmade catches designed and tested by Rose, Mavis and myself over several years and many workshops. These catches use a crimping method for attachment eliminating the need for knotting. They are oxidized (blackened) 925 silver with no shiny machine made parts to distract the eye from the delicate colours and structure of the necklace.

Strong steel cable and functional catches solve the problem of making short necklaces and bracelets and value add to the item for the buyer. Art centre's can assist their artists to increase the commercial value of the necklaces by providing workshops as well as supplying good quality threading materials, catches and basic jewelers pliers.

Issues of necklace structure are integral to the sale and price of the necklace and need to be negotiated between the art centre manager and the artist when the artist brings the necklace in for sale at the community art centre. In Arnhem Land there are times when art centre managers have to buy necklaces that they know they cannot sell, in this case they need to be sure that they buy them for the shells and these can then be re-strung by their artists during necklace making workshops, and not put up for sale until they have a quality product.

Maningrida Arts and Culture has run several workshops from 2003 to 2006 that focused on the technical construction of necklaces. At these events necklace makers were invited to come to Maningrida Arts and Culture for the day and spend time threading shells by undoing necklaces and bracelets that were too small or broken. These new necklaces were threaded onto nylon coated cable, and finished with our specially designed silver catches. All of the works made at the workshop in 2006 were exhibited and sold at the Maningrida Arts and Culture shop in Darwin, at higher prices than have been realised in the past. Each item was sold with the makers name and details attached, again adding value for the buyer.

The process of labeling each necklace with item, name, clan, moiety, and description as it arrives at the art centre is overwhelming, particularly in the dry season when necklaces arrive by the arm full. As a result necklaces can be found piled in boxes by the counter where their unique features become difficult to identify. It is impossible to see or recognise the time invested in the creation of each necklace. The time spent gathering and cleaning so many tiny shells, and the time creating complex patterns. At this busy time the art centre also agrees on a price for each necklace and the artist is paid an effective and transparent pricing guide will be useful in negotiation this transaction. The complexity of pricing necklaces for sale within the community and through the art centre is explored in the following case study.

Galiwin'ku case study

Wholesale and retail opportunities within the community vary and fluctuate with the effectiveness and interest of the local community art centre and art centre managers. Looking at Galiwin'ku / Elcho Island over two years 2004 - 2006 illustrates the complexity of trying to price work. During this period the art centre, Elcho Island Arts and Crafts, was bereft of an art centre manager and an art centre. Throughout this time many sales were lost with considerable loss of income to the community and council. In response to this situation artists sold work through other communities on the main land when they visited.

At Galiwin'ku a community market evolved where items were sold at very low prices, lower than they had been at the art centre, necklaces and bracelets were popular items offered regularly for sale. Artists regularly sold to visitors, teachers at the local school, collectors, museum curators and anthropologists who continued to visit the community and purchase art work. Works were purchased at a range of prices. This resulted in a great deal of confusion for everyone, those selling work and those purchasing work. More importantly it made the job of the incoming art centre manager, Stephen Hutchison, very difficult when Elcho Island Art and Craft reopened. Explaining the need for the centre to take a commission from the sale of works on display in order to have funds to purchase work was not understood.

For example, as Hutchison points out, many artists sales were not going through Elcho Island Art and Craft, yet the artists expected Elcho Island Art and Craft to make phone calls for them and help organize their work for exhibitions. Some artists felt that the art centre was not paying them enough and did not see the benefit of the commission that Elcho Island Art and Craft needed to take to maintain its presence. (Hutchison, 2006) This situation may have been avoided if there were workshops available for Elcho Island Art and Craft artists in finance and business education. Through this example it is evident that a transparent process may help arrive at a fair price.

The proposed Necklace Pricing Guide (see attachment A) details a method of classifying and pricing necklaces through their characteristics including; necklace length, threading technique, threading material, shell size, shell pattern, shell and seed type, catches and findings followed by a visual judgment. The guide has the potential to assist in the improvement of the quality of work for sale and offers a better pricing model than current practice.

To illustrate how to use the Necklace Pricing Guide in practice, consider some of the following characteristics from the guide in detail. For example the length of a necklace might be considered a useful measure of value within the pricing structure as it gives some recognition of the time involved alongside considerations of threading technique, size and type of shells and seeds used.

Necklace length has been divided into four types.

  1. Short choker length. This length requires a catch to join the necklace
  2. Medium length. This length represents most of the necklaces made at Maningrida Arts and Culture and this length fits over your head once. The market could do with more variation than this one length of necklace.
  3. Fashion long. This necklace can be put over the head twice.
  4. Very long. This type of necklace is highly versatile it can be work as a choker short wrapped three times round the head, or worn twice round the head, or as a single long elegant necklace. In my observations very few of these necklaces are being made, many more were made about three years ago.

Necklace threading falls into three basic types determined by the number of threads used to make a necklace, for example single, double and triple (See attachment A). A necklace of triple threading requires many more shells and is more labour intensive than a single shell necklace. It should be valued at a higher price.

The final aesthetic judgment, falls first to the art centre manager and then to the art centre visitor, or exhibition curator as they select works for public presentation. A pricing guide to help with this negotiation could make a useful tool for discussion. In the process those purchasing necklaces may learn from Aboriginal makers more about indigenous aesthetic judgment as they explain what is valuable about a necklace.

Once each section of the chart is completed it is possible to add up the number of ticks on the chart and discover that the works fall into three main areas as a price guide. It is then up to the art centre manager to decide whether their commission should be placed on top of this price as is usually the case or as often happens in the arts within this price bracket. The final wholesale price is approximately two to three times the current price being paid for necklaces to artists.

In conclusion necklace makers in Arnhem Land have shown considerable independence and determination in the continued development and practice of necklace making. These makers need to be availed of opportunities offered by ANKAAA (Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists) and the state ministry, Arts Northern to learn more about necklace structure.

Art centre managers may have to take on the challenge to ensure that necklaces are made strong and well and offer to re-thread works when they break. Women necklace makers are beginning to pass on their skills to younger women in recognition that necklace making helps keep culture active and strong.

Finally, necklace making needs to be considered a serious income stream for Arnhem Land women artists in all communities. The names of necklace makers need to be documented and artists given the same promotional, workshop, exhibition and development opportunities as male artists. These artists need to be supported by researchers interested in the sustainable production of their art form who will take up the challenge of identifying the many shell beds that provide them with necklace shells.


Since this paper was presented Elcho Island Arts and Crafts has undergone considerable and significant change under the guidance of Stephen Hutchison. In 2008 the art centre changed its name to Elcho Island Arts, and the centre was established as a business enterprise under the Marthakal Homelands Resource Centre. The artists have regular community meetings and all financial funds raised stay within the art centre for its use to buy more materials and works from artists.

In December 2008 they moved back into the old art centre buildings which have been renovated and painted. In 2009 verandahs will be added, making for considerable covered outdoor working areas. Elcho Island Arts has a new Art Centre Manager Dion Teasdale, and has recently organised for Mavis Ganambarr to work at the art centre four days a week through the Community Development Employment Projects program (CDEP). Mavis is well qualified to work at the centre being a respected and established artist with a national reputation for exquisite dyed pandanus baskets and shell and seed necklaces. Mavis is fluent in many indigenous languages and is regularly asked to recall her ancestral connections and knowledge. In 2009 the future for Elcho Island Arts and its artists is positive, it offers other communities a model of practice to emulate.

Attachment A

Necklace Pricing Guide

Necklace types (6) groups

Painted shell and seed Seed Shell and seed Shells and or shark vertebrae Shell and feathers Necklaces with manufactured
components: cable, catches, tubing
beads; plastic, glass and metal.

Necklace Length

1.Choker length

400 - 550mm

2.Medium length

600 – 1000mm

3.Fashion long x 2 head


4.Fashion very long x3 head

1480mm + 1550 +

Threading technique
Single Double Triple
Threading material
Fishing line Beading Cable Hand made bark string

Seed size

 Painted Medium Fine

Shell size

Large  Painted Medium Fine

Large shells

Large mixed shells Large mixed shells long x 2 r head Medium or necklace shells

Shell pattern - sorted

Grey coloured necklace unsorted, and string single vertebrae Sorted shades of necklace shell, yellows greys, black Brightly coloured sorted by colour and pattern, red, pink, purple, black, pattern

Shell type and other features

Per type of shell
Common snail shell Hand made bark string Maireener shell /rice shells
A few shark vertebrae Shark vertebrae a few pieces used as spaces Black snail neritidae, Pink snail shell Trochidae
  2 x  pul pul (flower feathers) Lots of shark vertebrae
  Necklace shell in a good colour Lorikeet feathers

Catch, finding, clasp

0 per finding
Cheap electroplated base metal catch

memory wire

Handmade oxidised catch

unwearable size

threading wire

not well strung, or knotted.

parrot clasp

  joined by crimp  

Visual judgment

No real pattern colour mix

Common grey, cream, pattern colour mix with seeds

Unusual colour, pattern, rhythm, visually strong necklace
Common grey, cream, colour mix Good visual pattern  


3  -  10 11 -  15 16 -  30

Wholesale example

Base price $20 $25 -$40 $45 - $60 $65 - $120 +

Retail example

Wholesale price $40

Includes Art Centre mark up
Retail price 50% + mark up $80

GSTax 10% $8   

 TOTAL $88 retail price



Alice Whish is an established jeweller. In addition to being a maker she is involved in a number of community art projects. Currently, she is working with women from Northeastern Arnhem Land to raise the profile of Aboriginal womens craft and their shell and seed necklaces, through exhibitions, exchanges and conferences.


  1. Mamuniny, R. 2005. (Personal communication, August 2005)
  2. Hamby, L. 2000, Objects between cultures, Celebrates necklaces from remote Australia the Girringgirring of Gapuwiyak in Northeastern Arnhem Land, Object, 3, pp. 28 - 31.
  3. Hutchison, S. 2006. (Personal communication, August 2006)
  4. Kohen, A. 2006. (Personal communication, August 2006)