Marau Sound, a scattered group of small islands at the eastern tip of Guadalcanal in the Solomons, is well off the regular tourist routes. The occasional cruising yachts stop by there – attracted not only by the good anchorages but also by the tranquil beauty of the area.
If you visit Marau Sound, you may wish to stay at the exclusive Tavanipupu Private Island Resort, one the nicest resorts in the Solomon Islands.
Iain Gower lived in Marau for almost 30 years. He originally came up from Sydney as a young man to manage a plantation at Marau, later bought the same plantation and settled there with his wife and children. Iain was one of the first people to dive with scuba in the Solomon’s and for many years was involved in the specimen shell trade – gaining a wide reputation as a reliable supplier of rare shells to overseas collectors. His work with seashells centered around the small though thriving business he has established in Marau manufacturing shell jewellery.
When Iain first started to make shell jewellery – in 1968 – he had a single grinding wheel – powered by a drive from a tractor take-off. The first pieces he made were offered for sale in the capital, Honiara, 100 kms up the coast from Marau. These original items proved to be very popular and demand soon outgrew supply. More precise machinery was soon required. In place of the single grinder of 1968, a variety of tools are now used, a large generator supplying the electrical power needed. Bench grinders are used for the initial shaping and the finer work is done with dental drills with flexible shafts and diamond burr tips. An ultrasonic drill is also used for very fine work though all the final polishing is done by hand.
After the initial response to his jewellery, Iain soon realized that he could not handle all the work involved himself. He enlisted the local Marau people as craftsmen for many years to come. Iain collected the shell himself. He supplied this to the people working with him, they used his tools to manufacture items and he bought the finished products from them at an agreed price. Iain employed ten local craftsmen and women to meet the increasing price of islander art and jewellery.
The shells that are used for Gower’s jewellery comprise mostly of gold and black lip pearl shell. These species are more often dwellers in deeper waters where strong currents prevail. For these Gower was obliged to dive down to 60m or more with scuba gear. Trochus shell, green snail, wing oysters are also utilized and additionally, black coral and pig tusks are also worked.
An article on Gower's Jewellery from 1975 explained his work as thus:
"It is difficult to describe the shell jewellery itself – partly because of the large variety of actual pieces made but also because it does not easily categorize". It is certainly not gaudy or gimmicky; but skillfully using the natural colours and shapes of the shells, Iain has been able to create jewellery of a simple, pleasing elegance.
Traditional jewellery items such as necklaces, pendants and earrings probably formed the major part of Gower’s output. In addition though, his workers produced small, beautifully crafted whales, dolphins and shark carved from black coral, shell or pig tusk.
Cruising yachts were his only passing trade through Marau Sound. The local market in and around Honiara were his retail outlets. Gift shops in the capital and the hostels and resorts on Guadalcanal and other islands all sold his jewellery, with demand outstripping supply.
Iain died in 1994 and following the civil tensions in the Solomons, most of his family settled back in Australia where all his children were educated. The family still own the property at Marau Sound, and Iain’s sons have kept this base in the Solomons with aquarium supplies to the United States of America. Iain’s second daughter Geanene (pronounced Janine) followed her father’s creative footsteps. Geanene has always had one foot in the Solomon Islands and one foot in Australia.
Geanene has her island instincts together with her Australian father’s creative skill with jewellery, presently designing a unique range of jewellery, creating one-off designs, depicting an endless summer look, influenced by the Solomon’s culture and customs. There is nothing mass produced about her jewellery, and Geanene creates these items with patience and attention to detail.
The Solomons is one of our closest neighbours but is mostly untouched by tourism and commercialism. There are hundreds of islands and atolls in the Solomons and the Gowers hold fast to their father’s prize, a piece of paradise at the corner of the deep seas of Guadalcanal.