Jeanette James is part of a select group of Tasmanian Aboriginal women who practice traditional jewellery making. The art of shell stringing is a valued, centuries old Palawa cultural tradition; it has been handed down through Jeanette’s family, who are originally from Flinders Island, for as long as anyone can remember.
Shell stringing is a practice that has recently been kept alive by a small group of women; with only around six necklace makers practicing today. There has been a concerted effort over the last 15 to 20 years to pass the skills on to younger generations and keep the practice alive. Jeanette was taught by her mother, Auntie Corrie Fullard, who is one of the senior custodians of the tradition.
The collection and preparation of shells for a single traditional length necklace (180 cm long) takes up to eight months and involves many time consuming processes including the removal of the shell skins, which reveals their beautiful iridescent colour. Jeanette uses traditional stringing patterns handed down through her family, and also her own contemporary designs.
In order to conserve the harder to get mariner shells her own designs make use of other shells such as black crow and white penguin shells. She is also very aware of the environmental concerns for the safety of the very small coastal areas where shells are traditionally collected.
Jeanette’s echidna quill necklace is a contemporary piece with traditional roots; it was inspired by a traditional neckpiece made out of wombat claws. Jeanette uses all natural materials for her echidna quill jewellery including New Zealand flax to string the quills. The quills come from echidna road kill, which Jeanette has a special licence to collect (since echidnas are a protected species). She then buries them in the garden for eight months to allow the body to decompose before digging up and cleaning the quills to use in her jewellery.
The story and traditions attached to the work give the echidna quill jewellery, like the shell necklaces, great cultural value.