Published by The Pacific Business Hub | By Anau Mesui-Henry
“One of the most important things in our lives is the bringing forward of Indigenous knowledge and
countering the dominant knowledge of things." Sonia Fonua
Fire and Sonia Fonua are the creative couple behind ‘Koloa Jewellery’. They are passionate about the process of ngatu (tapa cloth or decorated bark cloth) making, the history that it holds, and reimagining ngatu when it becomes unusable as koloa (treasure or gift). The passion behind Koloa Jewellery stems from a love of the Tongan culture and a desire to see it shared with their children. Not tucked away under a mattress or in the basement of the Auckland Museum.
So, who are Fire and Sonia, and where did the inspiration to create these beautiful pieces come from?
Fire, was three years old when he moved with his mother to Aotearoa. Hailing from the villages of Fasi and Kolofo’ou, Fire lived in Mangere until he was ten years old, then his family moved to Glen Innes where he, Sonia, and their two young sons still reside. Fire comes from a hospitality background, having managed various restaurants and bars, but now works from home to be there for his children.
The second part of the Koloa Jewellery equation, Sonia, who is of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English
descent, was born in Aotearoa. Currently working at the University of Auckland, Sonia has just finished her Ph.D.exploring successful Tongan science learners and their experiences in Aotearoa and Tonga's science education.
“They pointed to a huge Tongan ngatu wrapped in plastic, explained it, but no one could see it because it was wrapped in white plastic. Ngatu is put under the bed, and no one sees it, our kids don’t see it, our koloa only comes out in a katoaanga (special occasion)”, Fire reflects.
While on a basement tour of the Auckland Museum, Sonia and Fire were surprised to find a large amount of beautifully designed and crafted Tongan koloa. The tour was part of a museum plan to engage the Moana Oceania community more widely. However, it only left the founders of Koloa Jewellery with more questions: Why aren't these Tongan koloa accessible to the public? Why did European ornaments and artefacts get displayed in abundance above while these incredible Tongan items were kept in the basement and only accessible on special tours? "Some of this beautifully designed ngatu were 30-40 meters long and some close to 100 metres", Fire shared.
“That’s when we thought we can make it more accessible. Bring more life to it, bring it to life. Look at
details you would never look at”, Sonia commented.
This experience inspired Fire and Sonia to start creating. Before they knew it, Koloa Jewellery had been formed with Fire's enthusiastic mother assigned to design approval.
Why did they choose the name Koloa you might be asking?
“The name Koloa is because of what it is collectively named and because it is koloa too. It is part of Tongan history, it’s a treasure for our culture to have it. When you start thinking about the people who made the koloa and the occasions it’s been used as a gift, it’s a koloa to have people in Tonga still being able to make it”, Fire enlightens me.
Fire shares fond memories of the taovala (traditional waist garment) his father had worn for years, occasions the taovala had been to, and how his grandmother had lalanga (weaved) this taovala. There is a whole history in each piece of koloa, like Fire’s father’s taovala. To discard these taovala, or any koloa, is not just discarding a piece of deteriorating traditional garment or cloth, it is throwing history away.
"We have the Tongan village here," Fire laughs.
Fortunately, Fire and Sonia share their home with a large extended family, which enables the support they need to run their business, manage a young family, and ensure their day-to-day needs are met. The collective support of communal living allows Fire and Sonia the flexibility they need to create Koloa Jewellery pieces. They are very thankful, especially for the support of Fire's mum, who is their number one supporter.
“Our advice is… Just do it…Don't overthink it, just do it", - Fire and Sonia.
What strikes me about Fire and Sonia is their can-do and creative attitude towards creating Koloa Jewellery. Just do it. After the Auckland Museum basement tour, Sonia decided she was going to make jewellery. She ordered some resin online and started creating. Sonia and Fire brought various tools and equipment and experimented with different styles and looks.
Additionally, Sonia’s mother in law, Lavinia, would happily provide advice on the aesthetic of the pieces and so the creation process was shaped.
“We appreciate what the koka'anga does, and we want to help these businesses in Tonga," says Fire.
Koloa Jewellery will be taking a portion of its sales to support various koka'anga (the process of joining tapa and applying the kupesi) in Tonga. In fact, this process was supposed to start this coming July, but plans were halted due to COVID-19. While COVID-19 may have paused the project, Fire and Sonia still anticipate being with the koka'anga once border controls open in Tonga.
Each Koloa Jewellery piece is unique. These beautifully designed pieces of jewellery are not perfect because they aren't machine-made, but this adds to their beauty. Like a Tongan woman's individual koloa that's kept stored under the mattress, they are made from ngatu that have been handprinted by women who took time to design and share stories of the kupesi (patterns) that they painted. In the lines and details of the kupesi, Tongan culture and its history are embedded. Designs that are imperfect but perfect by the history that underpins them. Attaining a piece of Koloa Jewellery is not just a purchase, but a commitment to preserving history and heritage.
This dynamic duo is passionate about Indigenous culture and ways of being. “When we sell to non- Pacific peoples we get to explain what ngatu is. I am teaching them a part of my own culture that they would have not known or paid attention to”, Fire shares. Sonia adds, “I sold some earrings to someone I knew who is Maori and she said since buying them she doesn't buy anything that doesn't have an Indigenous culture behind it”. Wearing Koloa Jewellery is wearing history, heritage, and culture.
Koloa Jewellery can be ordered online. Please follow the links below to access your very own unique
piece of Koloa Jewellery. By the time this article goes live, I would have happily picked up a pair of
beautiful Koloa Jewellery earrings to add to my collection.