Woman's Valuable (Tolúk), late 19th–early 20th century
Belauan people, Belau (Palau), Caroline Islands
Turtle shell; H. 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Burnett, 1960 (1978.412.756)
The accumulation and exchange of wealth in the form of prestige valuables is an important aspect of Belauan culture. Although frequently referred to as "money," Belauan valuables are not currency in the ordinary sense but treasured objects, often with extensive individual histories, which are exchanged between families only on important occasions such as births, marriages, or deaths. Men and women each have their own forms of wealth, which cannot be owned or exchanged by members of the opposite sex. Women's wealth consists of tolúk (shallow trays), such as the present work, and itrir (spoons) made from subtly mottled plates of turtle shell.
The trays and spoons are created through a complex process, in which flat plates of turtle shell are transformed into three-dimensional objects. To form the trays, individual plates of turtle shell are immersed in hot water to soften them. Now malleable, the plates are placed in two-part molds of wood, which are tied tightly together and further heated to press the plates into the desired bowl-like form. Still within the mold, the turtle shell is placed in cold water to harden. Once cooled, the newly formed tolúk is ready for use.
Exchanged between rather than within families, tolúk are owned and used exclusively by women, and are presented as ritual payment to female in-laws for food or services, such as assistance in the preparations for a feast. When received, the trays are carefully preserved and form part of a family's store of wealth. Through years of exchange and handling, tolúk acquire individual histories and a rich, glossy patina and old and storied trays are valued far more highly than more recent examples.