All About Paua Shell Jewellery


So, what exactly are Paua shells?

If you have read anything previously about the Pāua shell, it may be that you have come across one or two articles suggesting that it is essentially identical to abalone and/or ormer.
Although there is an element of truth in this, to accept such a sweeping generalisation as being the end of the story would actually be to miss the point of what makes these shells so utterly unlike anything else.

There is, in fact, something in the order of 120 types of abalone to be found around the world, and within that grouping, there are three distinct types of Pāua shell (with the Blackfoot Pāua being the most numerous and popular for use in jewellery). All three are specifically native to the shallow coastal waters around New Zealand and the word “Pāua” is actually of Māori origin, although it is also sometimes referred to as a marine or sea opal.

Because these shells are only found in this one area of the world, Pāua are both rare and much sought after. There are stringent controls in place to limit the collection and ensure sustainability, indeed they have to be harvested by using only traditional “free diving” methods and the use of scuba equipment or modern machinery to farm them is strictly forbidden. Even so, there is a large commercial market for the shells and they also remain important in a Māori culture where they were once regarded as being a form of treasure and are still found in traditional carvings as well as the more contemporary arts and crafts.

Why are they so unique?

Abalone, in general, is known for its bold, iridescent colours but Pāua shells are recognised as being the most distinctively colourful and intense of all the species. In addition to the stunning variations of the usual silvers, greens and occasional pinks found in another abalone the Pāua can also include swathes of royal colours such as purple, crimson or gold.
With such a vast array of beautiful, natural colours it is easy to see why the Pāua shell lends itself so well to jewellery and has a broad appeal all of its own. One of its greatest assets is that no two shells are identical, so every piece incorporating a Pāua shell is absolutely unique. In effect, anybody buying Pāua shell jewellery is buying a bespoke item, no matter how large or small that item may be.

Another unusual advantage of these shells is that they can very much be marketed at either end of the spectrum and anywhere in between, from inexpensive jewellery and trinkets to the finest pieces set in precious metals either to complement or be complemented by various gemstones. Furthermore, an expert can polish a “raw” shell to a stunning finish in a matter of minutes and although fairly brittle compared to many gemstones they are reasonably durable and lend themselves to being shaped or drilled quite well which is of course ideal for jewellery making purposes.

Many people find the outer surface of the shell with its dark striations of conchiolin a thing of beauty in itself, however it is generally the inner surface of the nacre where smooth, almost viscous colours flow and blend together which is regarded as the most precious material and which goes into the majority of the most popular Pāua shell jewellery. The depth and mixture of colours available are almost endless, so if one looks carefully enough there is sure to be a colour variation or pattern to appeal to almost every conceivable taste.

Additionally, since the turn of the millennium, it has become common practice to produce blister pearls (sometimes called blue pearls). Using the Pāua mollusc species as the host body and using similar methods to those employed in producing marine pearls from oysters, these wonderfully diverse and colourful pearls have become another way to allow the wearer to enjoy a different twist to their Pāua jewellery collection.


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What do we need to do to get the best out of Paua jewellery?

Always remember that the Pāua shell or pearl was essentially once part of an organic, living creature.

As such, your jewellery should be worn often. Whilst natural body oils can damage certain gems there is evidence to suggest that they actually help the Pāua shell retain its polished luster. In addition, just as coral and marine pearls absorb moisture from the air, Pāua pearls and shells need to draw water vapour from the atmosphere to keep them from drying or cracking.

A regular clean with a very soft cotton or specialised jewellers cloth is recommended to keep Pāua jewellery looking pristine and it should be stored separately and out of direct sunlight to avoid damage or the risk of colours fading or bleaching.

In common with any other jewellery, the likes of detergents, perfumes and abrasive materials should be avoided at all costs. Though aquatic in nature, Pāua products shouldn’t be worn whilst swimming, commercial pools contain chlorine and other damaging chemicals and the sand, salts and minerals in the sea will also do more harm than good to the relatively soft surface of a refined and polished shell.

There is a school of thought that suggests that abalone also has various healing properties which it can bestow upon the wearer, without wishing to cast any doubt on the scientific basis of this a quick internet search does actually confirm more than a few examples of such cases so there may well yet be something extra special about these shells beyond their inherent beauty.