But those of the Noldoli whom Aule had most deeply taught laboured in secret unceasingly, and of Aule they had wealth of metals and of stones and marbles, and of the leave of the Valar much store too was granted to them of the radiance of Kulullin and of Telimpe held in hidden bowls. Starlight they had of Varda and strands of the bluest ilwe Manwe gave them; water of the most limpid pools in that creek of Kor, and crystal drops from all the sparkling founts in the courts of Valmar. Dews did they gather in the woods of Orome, and flower-petals of all hues and honeys in Yavanna’s gardens, and they chased the-beams of Laurelin and Silpion amongst the leaves. But when all this wealth of fair and radiant things was gathered, they got of the Solosimpi many shells white and pink, and purest foam, and lastly some few pearls. These pearls were their model, and the lore of Aule and the magic of the Valar were their tools, and all the most lovely things of the substance of the Earth the matters of their craft — and therefrom did the Noldoli with great labour invent and fashion the first gems. Crystals did they make of the waters of the springs shot with the lights of Silpion; amber and chrysoprase and topaz glowed beneath their hands, and garnets and rubies they wrought, making their glassy substance as Aule had taught them but dyeing them with the juices of roses and red flowers, and to each they gave a heart of fire. Emeralds some made of the water of the creek of Kor and glints among the grassy glades of Valinor, and sapphires did they fashion in great profusion, tingeing them with the airs of Manwe; amethysts there were and moonstones, beryls and onyx, agates of blended marbles and many lesser stones, and their hearts were very glad, nor were they content with a few but made them jewels in immeasurable number till all the fair substances were well nigh exhausted and the great piles of those gems might not be concealed but blazed in the light like beds of brilliant flowers. Then took they those pearls that had and some of well nigh all their jewels and made a new gem of a milky pallor shot with gleams like echoes of all other stones, and this they thought very fair, and they were opals; but still some laboured on, and of starlight and the purest water-drops, of the dew of Silpion, and the thinnest air, they made diamonds, and challenged any to make fairer.
Book of Lost Tales, JRR Tolkien
Now, this is from the old, superseded version of events in which the Noldoli/Noldor actually invented gemstones, as opposed to learning to work with them, but I still like it. It seems to be textual evidence for my own rather inchoate feelings about Noldor and the concept of “wealth.”
What is the common element in all of this? Color. Light. Nature’s abundance. They used flowers, and dew, and leaves, and sea-foam, and above all else, light to craft their gems. They used all of those things which were the transient wealth of of the world around them and then fixed them into a lasting form.
And they made so many of them that there were great heaps of them like flowers in beds, and they were made glad thereby. This is not the action of a culture which is greedy for anything so base as currency; this is a culture which values, above all else, beauty.
Indeed, the passage goes on, later, to say:
Now Kor is lit with this wealth of gems and sparkles most marvellously, and all the kindred of the Eldalie am made rich in their loveliness by the generosity of the Noldoli, and the Gods’ desire of their beauty is sated to the full.
They lit up Kor (Tirion) with the wealth of gems, they did not keep them hoarded and locked away, did not value personal wealth over community enjoyment. All the kindred of the Eldalie were made rich, it is specified, even though only the Noldoli actually made the gems. Even the Gods valued the beauty of the stones.
And the Gnomes and Solosimpi (Teleri) strewed diamonds and crystals and pearls “in prodigality” into the pools and it was “the fairest of all shores.” Again, beauty, and the liberal use of gems for public enjoyment rather than personal enrichment.
Even in later versions, wherein the elves did not “invent” gems but merely learned to work with them, would their motivations really be so different? This is not a human culture, and we are wrong to impute human motivations therein. Beauty, light, color. Not some concept of personal economic wealth. Nothing so base as that.
Really, as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no indication that the elves used anything like currency or money amongst themselves. The word “tax” only occurs in the entirety of HoME in its sense of “a strain or heavy demand,” not in any economic context. And the word “money” only occurs in HoME when referring to the ways of Hobbits. (I did a keyword search on a complete .PDF) The word “wealth” is used in HoME as often to describe “a wealth of flowers” as it is to describe gems or gold, which to me tends to put them on the same footing in Tolkien’s mind.
If the elves of Tirion can be said to have an economy, wouldn’t it be more likely to be based upon the things they are in fact shown to value? Skills, crafts, art itself! Sing me the new song you wrote, and I will fashion new strings for your lute! Make for me a chair carved with flowering vines, and I will give you a new set of forged carving tools! That kind of exchange, value for value. Barter of art, barter of skill and of craft. Not money.