Tangata Fletcher Melvin.
The second oldest Cook Island company is seeing a third generation of artisans make history.
Tangata Fletcher Melvin (Takuvaine, Avarua) has the business of craft in his blood.
His grandparents started Island Craft Limited in Rarotonga in 1943 selling souvenirs and photographic services. His mother and father were keenly interested in authentic Cook Island artefacts and once they took the helm they led a revival of the country’s arts and crafts movement.
After eighty years in operation, the unique blend of family values and cultural preservation has proven to be a winning formula and the craft dynasty are guardians of identity as much as they are masters of trade.
Having found a place in thousands of families around the world through their cultural products namely wood and shell carvings, Melvin credits his parents and grandparents for their leadership.
“They all instilled in me a sense of pride in antiquities that led me to appreciate Pacific art, the fact that it was a family business meant our passion for Cook Island products really impacted our lives.
“My parents contacted many museums and historical institutions during their research into lost artefacts. It wasn't until the mid-1960s that our workshop reproduced the first replica of a Tangaroa.
“My father had asked a museum in England to send a plaster cast of four tikis so we could carve them. Over the years, we have made all of the recorded artefacts. I was lucky to have grown up when my father and mother were researching and creating all the authentic artefacts.
“I fell in love with our pre-missionary history, which has shaped our business direction.”
Island Craft 21st Key carving. Photo/ Supplied
Melvin is now managing director and runs the company with his wife Vaea who he credits as his support and inspiration. His upbringing in the family business is coloured with memories of everyone getting together to discuss trade and their shared passion for local artisan products.
Melvin’s grandfather was an inventor who created the first commercial fishing boat in the Cook Islands called the Ravakai, and he was also a founding father of the booming pearl industry.
“My grandfather was an intellectual, my grandmother was the business mind who worked in the business while bringing up their five daughters and twin sons.
“All the sisters started their businesses and then my parents eventually took over Island Craft from my grandparents.”
As the business steadily grew over the years a new flower area was established enabling Island Craft to move into floristry. Melvin and his wife Vaea have recently acquired Perfumes of Rarotonga, manufacturing coconut skincare products and there is a new clothing line to shop in-store.
“There are endless possibilities for emerging businesses in the region. The fact that we are so isolated and that our unique stories are only now exposed to the world means we have a niche market.
“My advice to young Pacific entrepreneurs is just starting out is to draw inspiration from your Polynesian past and don’t be afraid … you don’t need to be perfect to start creating as improvements come over time, so make it and get it to market. Everyone can create unique products.”
Melvin is determined to ensure there are clear career pathways into and within the industry. His thoughts on how the sector could better flourish are connected to greater opportunities for the arts in education and to showcase emerging talent continuously. He says the creative industries in the Cook Islands can serve as a career platform for anyone who is creatively minded and at any level.
Island Craft is also the business that many Pacific families turn to for carved twenty-first keys and Melvin says they know it's real privilege to be relied on for such iconic mementos.
“We love seeing our customers so happy when they celebrate events and our creations have made their day so special.
“The fact that our little island can produce high-quality arts and crafts while also preserving our culture is something we are proud of.
“[And] it is our family’s social responsibility to ensure these products are available in the market.”