Shell money is a currency made of shell that is used in the Solomon Islands. Although its use started in Malaita Province, it is now used throughout the Solomon Islands and continues to have value.
Before they were known as people from Langa Langa, some 150 years ago, they were kicked off the land by headhunters and pushed into the sea. One rock at a time, they started building their own artificial islands in Langa Langa Lagoon. However, living on rock islands make it awfully hard to grow food or raise animals so they became entrepreneurs: they made boats, and they made it rain with Langa Langa bitcoin. All Solo shell money comes from Langa Langa Lagoon, continues to be made there, and is still used as currency today.
So, how is it made?
Making shell money is a long process that needs many hands to make light work. To make it traditionally, one person couldn’t possibly make it by themselves.
The first step is gathering and diving for the shells. This job is left to the boys but finding the right shells has gotten a lot harder. The scale of shell money production has stripped the lagoon of its shells and they are much more difficult to find. Once upon a time, the shells were free but now sacks of shells are often imported and purchased from other parts of the Solomon Islands.
And you can’t just use any old shell, there is a hierarchy. The ones with the pink hue, the ‘red shells’, are the diamonds of the lot because they are rare to find and the hardest to break down and process. Red shell money are the most expensive to trade and buy and traditionally hold the most value. Red shell shows everyone you’re ballin and will get you the most Sol tuna for your buck. Shell money can also come in white, black, brown and grey.
Once flush with shells, the women will start to break them down in a shell money making assembly line.
The young ones with less experience will start at the top of the line. They will carefully smash the shell with a rock to break it down into small pieces. These pieces will be passed onto the next woman who will shape the pieces into rough circles.
The red shells will always be handled by women with a lot of experience so that as little shell as possible is wasted.
Next, the surface of the shell pieces are smoothed down by grinding between two stones and a bit of water.
Once smooth, a hole will be drilled into the middle. The oldest women in the line will probably be the one manning the drill. Drilling, especially with the traditional tool, is a finicky job that takes years of experience to nail.
“Disfala job hem favourite job blo mi. But mi save duim eni job.” Grandma said smugly when we asked her what part she liked doing the best.
From here, the shells are barbequed on hot rocks to bring out the true colour of the shell. There is a knack to knowing when they are cooked enough because yes, it is possible to undercook and overcook a shell. Red shell money actually comes out orange.
If you were pressed for time, you could put these pieces in your wallet and start using the shells as money. This would only work if you were buying in Langa Langa and a handful of pieces could get you a packet of biskits.
However to reach its final traditional shell money form, there are a few more steps.
After being cooked, the pieces are then strung into 1.5 m strings for sanding. The sanding is always done by the men because it literally takes a whole day to do just one strand and women have much better things to do all day than sand.
Finally, when the strings are looking smooth and pretty, they are strung into 10-string ‘strip’ and small pieces of jewellery.
One strip of string money would be worth around 1300 SBD dependant on the quantity of red shell.
Once you have your string money, it can be used for bartering and ceremonial payments. One of its major uses is bride price, a dowry paid to the bride’s family. Shell money is practically synonymous with bride price and the cost of a bride can be anything from 10 strips to 120 strips (not including pigs, cash money, etc etc).
Shell money can also be used for compo: if you have done a wrong against a person, you’d be expected to compensate your bad with a shell money settlement. If you’re a big man attending an important local event, you’d expect the hosts to adorn you with shell money bling like the one Mary wears at her church at Visale.
If you’d like your own piece of shell money, they are easy to come by at Honiara Central Market. Some fear shell money will stop being made, so you could start hoarding it.
But the best way to get your shell money is to have it gifted to you. And if it’s red, you know you’ve gained your Solomon street cred.