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Artisans of Raivavae craft keepsakes with an island distinction

Many Raivavae natives create shell jewelry, wood carvings and other items that speak of the island

Irene Maihota is a sought-after craftswoman in the Austral Islands. She makes shell necklaces that French Polynesians give to family and friends when they leave on a journey.

Her necklaces are so popular that each one she makes is spoken for long before it is finished.

Maihota is like many Raivavae natives, earning a small living with their crafts. Raivavae has no industry, one reason its lagoon is so clean and its air is so clear. Most residents live sustainably, farming or fishing to earn a living, but it's nice to have a little side income.

Maihota makes 10 of the yellow shell necklaces each day, which she sells for 2,500 French Pacific francs, or a total of about $24.

Not far from her home I spotted a sign that said "Artisan" in front of a small white house. A special room was set aside to show the creations of Jeanine Tamaititahio, who makes intricate shell necklaces, headbands and leis woven out of wood shavings.

I bought a hair ornament and lei and a friend bought a shell necklace, spending about $50. Jeanine thanked us and said we had helped her have a very good day.

At the foot of Mt. Hiro, the dominant mountain on the island, we found the tidy home of wood carver Vaiti Tiarii, who shares his abode with three dogs and a wandering piglet that will eventually become New Year's Eve dinner.

Tiarii has clients abroad and carves decorative drums, bowls and ladles. Most recently, he spent two months on an oversized spoon that sold for $600.

In the village of Rau'ure, we visited the home of Tuanua Rauea, a master carver capable of carving an outrigger canoe, a dying art.

Recently, he made one from a cashew tree. But he also does figurative carvings and recently sold a statue of five people fishing. It took him about a month to make and he earned about $130 for the work.

"I wish I could make more," Rauea said. "But I'm happy to be able to make and sell these things."

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