Jewelry: Tribal Treasures

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For nearly two decades, Lisa Black, a New York native living in Australia, learned about tribal antiquities and oceanic art from her husband, Robert Bleakley. He is the former director of the tribal art department at Sotheby’s London and the founder of Sotheby’s Australia, where he served as chief executive officer for 15 years before retiring in 1998. As Black gained an appreciation for such relics, she began collecting them and having some incorporated into necklaces and earrings. When her friends saw Black wearing these pieces made with remnants of necklaces worn by Mayan princesses or fragments of ancient Mesopotamian lapis lazuli, they offered to buy her designs.


Four years ago, Black created her first collection using exotic antiquities, pearls, and handmade 22-karat gold elements. The small-scale necklaces and earrings that she produces from these artifacts do more than just make fashion statements; each component of the jewelry tells a story about the time and place from which it came. Black’s carved Conus shell pendant served as a nose ring for a 19th-century Micronesian tribe member. She discovered the carving during a trip to Papua New Guinea and placed it on a necklace of pearls and rubies. A gold Taiganja pendant, which a young Micronesian girl wore as a symbol of fertility and prosperity, hangs from a pearl and gold bead necklace. Black’s cache also includes etched carnelian that can be traced to the Sumerians circa 2600 B.C. and deep red Tibetan coral that commonly was bartered along Marco Polo’s trade routes. Black includes with each design information about the origins of its significant elements and how they were used or worn.

“My jewelry comprises recycled elements from the past millennia,” says Black, who moved to Australia nearly 20 years ago and currently lives on the continent’s east coast in Byron Bay. “I maintain the integrity of these elements by keeping them in their original form without cutting or polishing the stones or shells.” Black’s husband helps her acquire the relics through his network of dealers. The couple and their three children also spend several months a year traveling to remote destinations in search of tribal artifacts. “The problem is,” she says, “once I sell something, there is no repeating or replacing it—each one is a unique piece of history and culture.”

Lisa Black Jewellery



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