July 2015

Buttons from Trochus shells

I have an old Trochus shell that has perfect little round circles taken out of it. Is this natural or man-made?

Answer

Trochus shell and button blank from the Museum collection Trochus shell and button blank from the Queensland Museum collectionYou have an interesting piece of button-making history. Those holes were sawn out of the shell to produce buttons. Some shells were pre-polished to create a two sided pearl button, or one side was left with the natural shell colour (in this case a largely red lined natural pattern) that would be visible on the button. Above is an image of a trochus shell and a button blank that can be produced from such a shell. These blanks would then have the button holes drilled into them to become a finished button.

Trochus shells from the Queensland Museum collection Trochus shells from the Queensland Museum collectionTrochus shells Trochus niloticus (as well as Pearl shells) were collected in the Torres Strait. Trochus shellers (people collecting the shells) ranged down the barrier reef, operating out of Cairns, Townsville and Mackay before returning to Thursday Island. The shells were commercially harvested from the early 1900s continuing until the mid-1950s when the advent of plastic buttons spelt the end of the industry. The loss of numerous Japanese divers through internment during WWII also had a big impact on the industry. Proudly a quarter of the fleet in the 1920’s were ‘company boats’ owned by the local Island council. Harvesting was dangerous and divers risked their health facing injury and sometimes death. The industry allowed Islander men to become familiar with Australian mainland cities as well as forming cross cultural exchanges with the Malaysian, Japanese and South Sea Islander men. One famous Pearl Diver is Seaman Dan (Lugger Captain, diver and singer).

Some licenses are still in operation for Australian traditional inhabitants only and small amounts of shells are also taken for subsistence purposes.

Find out more about the culture of Torres Strait Islands and the pearl shell industry at the Queensland Museum in the Dandiiri Maiwar display and in the Discovery Centre.

Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.