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Through many time periods things have had value due to their usefulness or their appearance and/or rarity such as precious metals like gold and silver and coins made from them, precious stones like diamonds and rubies, or even shaped metals like Chinese knife money. However one thing common across many time periods was that materials that are very common like rocks or dirt have had very little value. But what about a material that is both common, innately useful, and pretty to look at.

In the world I'm writing of there is a material called nautilite that is as strong as bronze and has the appearance of white iridescence similar to nacre when light is shone upon its surface. This magical material is what a lot of molluscs have their shell composed of and when their shells as they so commonly do wash up on the shoreline where they shine in their beautiful iridescence they are very easy to spot.

These shells can be made into many things such as jewelry due to their beauty or even have holes drilled into them and be made into an armor suit made of overlapping shells which is comparable to the bronze armor already present(my setting has iron working being very rare and steel is nearly nonexistent with only a few pieces of steel being present and given legendary status). Larger shells can even have a leather and felt liner set into them to create a beautiful and very protective helmet.

However this does present a problem for rulers and that is how do they make sure they have a stable economy that doesn't collapse when someone brings in thousands of these nautilite shells that they found which can be used for many things due their material strength being comparable to bronze and their innate beauty?

EDIT: Some additional info is that Nautilite can't be melted down otherwise it loses its magical properties like durability and appearance when heated in a sufficiently hot enough fire(2000 degree fahrenheit). Nautilite can't be reshaped like bronze and if subjected to great enough force will begin to crack and chip. Bronze(or any sufficiently hard metal) is also needed to drill through Nautilite because a stone drill will wear before it even begins to scratch it.

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    $\begingroup$ Such materials already exist in the real world. Consider wood, for example — it’s very common, it’s very useful, and many woods are very attractive when polished and varnished. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Jun 16, 2022 at 6:17
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeScott And... If you've been to HD or Lowes lately, you know how very expensive wood is! $\endgroup$
    – Glen Yates
    Jun 16, 2022 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ Iron is extremally common but has always had high value because it is extremally useful. the more useful it is the less how lit looks matters. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 16, 2022 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think you understand how drills or hardness work, most stone are way WAY harder than bronze, sand will drill through steel, and sand is fairly low on rock harness. the hardest substances on earth are rocks. if you can drill through it with bronze even stone age drills made of wood and grit can do it. he harder it is the more you want to use stone drills as bronze will overheat and deform. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 16, 2022 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ Shells have been used as currency(Pacific North West -forgotten which groups). But because of the source animal and where it lived(under water, not shallow,) There was no easy way of causing a glut in the supply of shells. $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2022 at 18:44

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Since no-one else has mentioned it, it's worth pointing out that our perception of what is beautiful is partly about what is fashionable, which is partly determined by scarcity. In a world where this nautilite is very common, nautilite jewellery will at best be seen as 'pretty, but tacky/cheap-looking'.

For examples of this in our world, think of:

  • Gold, silver and rare gems being enduringly seen as beautiful, but even gold-coloured 'costume jewellery' which is obviously not made from the metal itself is less respected.
  • Pale skin was seen as beautiful when it was a sign that the individual could afford to stay indoors and have others work for them; more recently tanned skin is more fashionable because it indicates the individual can afford to take sunny holidays – but now that it is easy to go to a tanning booth or buy fake tan, being overly-tanned is seen as crass.
  • When clothing materials like nylon and Lycra were new they were most fashionable because they were hard to access; now that they are much cheaper than natural fabrics they are seen as unfashionable.

In your world nautilite will still be recognised as pretty in the same way that the natural world can be pretty, but it will not be fashionable unless it has been worked in such a way that the expensive/difficult craftsmanship is clear. Wearing lots of unworked nautilite will be like someone in our world wearing a tacky cheap gold-coloured outfit.

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Leave it as it is. It is like wood, or stone, both commonly available and both quite useful. You don't try to control it.

It doesn't become money, only something that is difficult to forge (not in terms of metal, in terms of forgery) can become money.

In the meantime, your shells are bought and sold cheap, like we buy and sell wood and stone. And it would be just as ubiquitous as wood or stone in our culture; people use it wherever they can.

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You more or less answered your own question, after a fashion. The value is not necessarily in the material itself but the work required to make it useful.

Wampum Somewhat like your nautilite, were beads fashioned from shells and used and currency by native americans. The value was in the production, though the shells suitable for wampum had some intrinsic value, but very little. The true value was after it was processed into beads, jewelry or even sometime armor. The difficulty of getting a hole through a nautilite shell may be just a matter of using a harder substance or more difficult, getting a hole through it without it shattering. Shaping the shells to fit into a piece of armor, or what have you, without it losing it magical properties. Perhaps treating them with other substances to enhance or, stabilize it intrinsic properties. You have total control over how difficult it is to work with nautilite, is't your invention and magical afterall. So how much it plays into the economy is up to you.

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Why use bronze when cheaper nautilite is available

If nautilite is

  • as useful as bronze
  • costs less than bronze
  • can replace bronze in almost all applications

then why would people use bronze. They would use nautilite instead.

Jewelry vs. artificial jewelry

Jewelry means it is made of very expensive material. Necklace made of gold is jewelry but necklace made of aluminum with gold-plating is artificial jewelry. So anything made of cheaper nautilite will be artificial jewelry worn by children or poor people.

Economies don't depend on cheap abundant materials

Cheap materials which are easily available everywhere don't hit economy much if a huge quantiy is suddenly found. Only it will become cheaper and more worthless.

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    $\begingroup$ "then why would people use bronze. They would use nautilite instead." Well, nautilite is very set in shape so to speak and can't be melted down or reshaped unlike bronze which can be made into shapes such as swords and plows. Bronze is also needed to drill through nautilite shell because doing so with a stone drill wouldn't work. $\endgroup$
    – Vaolor
    Jun 16, 2022 at 10:33
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I like @Gilimesh answer about wampum, and think another analogy would be knappable materials like flint chert and obsidian that probably had more value after being worked than in their raw form, and were traded over very large distances in some cases. Transporting the raw material in the case knappable materials was probably limiting due to the weight, although I would guess that some small cores were carried to knapp off small tools when needed.

When the raw materials are really common then people will find uses for them. For example, there are Spanish accounts of in mesoamerica of barbers knapping a fresh obsidian razors for shaving and showing them they could produce about 100 prismatic blades in an hour.

In terms of economics, I think the main driver is probably the transportation costs and ability to move the material from the seashore to inland. Also the ability to search the beaches and find the materials would still be limiting and for your story purposes might influence the society, or even the location of cities to be where there might be a higher concentration of the materials washing up on shore.

Would there be travelers/ beachcombers who collect and the find the materials far from the cities, but then have to worry about being robbed as they transport them back for sale. Are there secrete spots where more are washed up?

Perhaps divers who try to collect them before the are visible on the shore, or underwater deposits that could be exploited?

Specialized craftsman who can do unique things with the material, but perhaps need specialized tools.

If the material is available on the coasts, but not inland, the inland people may value it more and what would the inland people have to trade for the material, perhaps grain crops, or cattle/swine, or spices?

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Nautilite's value is going to vary with distance from the seashore.

If this material is harvested from the sea, but not available inland, then it will have to be transported. People who live near the sea could harvest it, carry it to an inland city, and trade it for more than they could trade it for in their seaside town. They would be limited by how much they could carry, not how much they could buy.

This is a bit of a problem for a currency, I think, because you want your currency to be a reliable measure of value that is more or less useful for everyone. If you went with nautilite, you wouldn't even be able to buy a sandwich with it in one of those coastal towns, but it'd be quite useful inland. I have a feeling your people will gravitate toward something like copper or silver so you'd have something with a more universal value, that could be used to buy and sell things anywhere (even if prices vary).

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  • $\begingroup$ cowry shells have been one of the most common currencies ever, so just because they come from the sea is not that big a limitation. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 16, 2022 at 23:53
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1- The rulers declare ownership of the nautili material to be free for all adults who are full and free citizens according to the law. It cannot be owned or traded legally - but the workmanship put into the making of a complex artefact or piece of armour may be payed for and then owned - but the prospective buyer must collect the shells themselves in-person.

2 - Alternatively, the state owns them, or in the case of a monarchy, the King or Queen as in the UK the Queen owns all the mute swans. (Terms and conditions apply.) It would therefore necessitate severe penalties for anyone found in possession without the official purchase papers (and seal) issued by the governors.

As an added bonus, the rulers merchandise a certain amount of the powdered nautilus shells mixed with oils and waxes as makeup - exclusive to the rich - and for very special occasions for important ceremonies such as marriage, used in small quantities by the commoners. Naturally, there'll be copycat materials - but never with the same opalescence or lustre.

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In feudal societies, money appears in the form of tokens the soldiers and other non-farming specialists spend for provisions, and which are subsequently collected back as taxes.

It is in the best interest of the king to select a token that is difficult to forge, either because it is scarce, or because it requires economies of scale during production.

The peasants are unlikely to invent their own monetary system, they have no need for one, and the bourgeoisie are dependent on the state, so they will adopt whatever the army uses.

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Not every resource is part of an economy.

Oxygen for breathing isn't traded or regulated on a use basis. Another useful thing almost everyone has is hands- they're plentiful, and most people are born with them, and they are both incredibly useful and not limited by any authority. Plenty of things that are part of our daily lives are things we have easy access to without having to deal with trade relations or anything of the sort, either because we were born with them or they are so omnipresent that we are post-scarcity with that.

If raw nautilite shells are common, not due to them being so important that everyone pays exorbitant fees for them (such as when necessities are in shortage), but due to them being naturally plentiful, then there's no reason that they have to have monetary value at all- the sunset is beautiful, but I don't have to pay money to see it, because no one can stop me from having it. If the nautilite shells are beautiful, but so plentiful that there is no monopoly, then I don't have to pay money to have them.

Your trade value is the minimum of three sources- effort gone into it, scarcity compared to demand, and innate value. If it takes no effort, you could do it yourself for no effort so it's free. If there's no scarcity, then you could take as much as you need, there's always enough. If it has no innate value, you have no reason to purchase it, and with no customers, its trade value is zero. Despite the nautilite shells being incredibly useful, they could never be sold for anything- if someone charged me $5 for a shell that I could pick up an identical copy of off the floor in a few seconds, I'd never buy from them. The only nautilite shells of value are those that contradict the premise- the rare ones such as the helmet-sized ones, or those that are goods that use nautilite shells as a raw material (such as the armor or jewelry, which unlike the shells requires human effort to create each, and thus are not post-scarcity). Handicrafts involving found material in the real world still sell, because it involves an element of effort, scarcity, AND innate value- they have to be made, there are constructed and thus finite in availability, and they are often beautiful- having met all three criteria, they can sell. Armor/jewelry/tools made of nautilite will still be of value.

The raw material does gain value when they are no longer infinitely available- kingdoms by the shore may not value nautilite, but those inland might trade higher prices for it. For how economies deal with some countries having plentiful access to rare goods of value while others lack the ability to produce it, look to the history of the spice trade and how politics shifted such that countries without direct access to rare goods used colonies and such to gain direct access to plentiful and valuable goods without having to trade.

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