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Reviewed by:
  • Pacific Jewelry and Adornment
  • Donald H Rubinstein
Pacific Jewelry and Adornment, by Roger Neich and Fuli Pereira. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8248-2882-8; 190 pages, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. US$33.00.

One would expect a publication on Pacific jewelry and adornment to be an attractive production, and this book is indeed beautifully designed and printed. Over 240 high-quality photographs embellish the book and illustrate a splendid array of objects from around the Pacific. Many of the objects are dramatically photographed against a black background; all the pieces are very well lit to reveal fine details of workmanship and materials. In some cases backlighting is also used to good advantage to show off the translucence of jade or turtle-shell finery. Additionally, over 40 photographs taken in situ, some from as early as the 1880s and others quite recent, show Pacific Islanders wearing personal adornments. The objects are all from the collection of the Auckland Museum, [End Page 473] and the photographs are from both the Auckland Museum and the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

Following an introductory essay, the book is divided into five chapters, each devoted to a geographic-cultural region. A brief two-page note on the collections follows the main chapters.

For a region as diverse and vast as the Pacific Islands, writing an introductory twenty-page essay that contextualizes jewelry and adornment within local cultural systems of meaning without indulging in truisms and overgeneralizations is a difficult challenge. Roger Neich succeeds well. He addresses the cultural diversity of the Pacific at the outset and provides a very brief overview of Pacific prehistory, from its ancient Pleistocene beginnings at least 40,000 years ago with settlement of New Guinea, Australia, and Near Oceania, to the more recent expansion of Austronesian-speaking peoples, the development of the Lapita cultural complex around 3,500 years ago, and the settlement ofthe wider Pacific. Neich situates jewelry broadly within Pacific Islanders' beliefs in a "vital spiritual energy, a life force that animates the universe" (14). He makes the point that objects of personal adornment serve as more than mere decoration, by focusing this energy and providing people some control over its power. Alluding further to the semiotic function of jewelry and adornment, Neich describes the "message of the materials" (17). The rarity of certain materials such as varieties of seashell or pearl shell, or the difficulty of working very hard materials into ornaments, gave some materials enormous value and a central role in systems of currency. Neich gives particular attention to the widespread connection between jewelry and currency, especially in areas of Melanesia and Micronesia where shell disc currency was in use. Without proposing an overarching theory of Pacific jewelry, he suggests a continuum in the connection between currency and ornament, from one extreme where the object is purely one of wealth or economic value, to another "where the aesthetic value is paramount and any commercial value is minimal or obsolete" (27).

More culturally specific to Pacific Islanders' world, Neich points out the "close connection between fishhooks and ornament throughout much of the Pacific" (25), and the deep cultural significance of ornaments made from fishhooks or parts of them or imitations of them. He also discusses the use of jewelry as symbolic protection in warfare or against sorcery, or jewelry worn as "charms, talismans and amulets" to protect against evil or to help seduce the opposite sex (29). Neich describes how Pacific jewelry marked social status, or functioned as symbols of rank and leadership or markers of clan membership, or functioned as heirloom objects embodying ties to ancestors whose preserved body parts (hair, teeth, bones, fingers, skull) might serve as personal ornaments for surviving kin.

Following the introductory essay, the five main chapters serve as regional galleries of areas throughout the Pacific, exemplifying through photographs and descriptions of objects many of the points made in the introductory essay. Each chapter begins with a one- or two-page overview of the geography, history, cultural emphases, social organization, [End Page 474] and systems of trade in the area. Chapter 1, Micronesia, includes objects predominantly from Kiribati, undoubtedly owing to the colonial...


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