My friend Nancy has visited New Zealand a couple of times before. One cannot possibly leave NZ without paua jewelry - nor can you miss it as Nancy tells me it is in practically every gift shop. Pictured here are her paua jewelry which were gifts from friends.

Nancy says the people there pronounce paua close to how we say "power". Paua or pāua is the Māori name given to the species of abalone whose inner shell lining is prized for jewelry making. It is also called "sea opal". Although abalone is found all over the world, only those found around New Zealand display the gorgeous iridescent colours we have come to love.

There are actually three species of these edible sea snails in New Zealand, of which Haliotis iris is the most well known and the most common. It can grow quite large as you can see from the picture below. Nancy brought back these two shells (below left), one of which has only half of its outer crusty shell ground away. The picture on the right shows the inside of the shell with a greyish area in the middle. This is the scar left by the muscular foot which is used by the mollusc to cling to rocks at depths of 1-15 meters. The series of holes you can see on the shells are the mollusc's breathing vents. They feed on seaweed.

The Māori regard paua as taonga, or treasure because it is a food source (the muscular foot is a delicacy) and a resource for their art. Paua is used for the eyes in their carvings. The New Zealand government's Ministry of Fisheries oversee the sustainability of this valuable resource. Their efforts include combating illegal fishing which is a serious problem. To ensure the stocks don't deplete, only free-diving (no scuba gear) is permitted for harvesting. Great white sharks haunt some areas so harvesting is fraught with danger.

The Eyris Blue Pearl Company makes the most gorgeous iridescent blue pearls using these abalones. The pearls are coated in the same iridescent nacre as found in the shell linings. Nancy said these blue pearls were way out of her price league so we have to be content with the images from Eyris's website photo gallery.

Abalone pearls are much harder to culture than oyster pearls. The company had to pioneer ways to farm paua. They have a voracious appetite for high quality seaweed. The way they nucleate (the art of introducing a seed inside the shell) the mollusc is a trade secret. The process is very delicate as a single nick could be fatal to the animal for it has no blood clotting ability.

Only 20% of the paua harvest will yield marketable blue pearls and only 1 in 50 will be a near perfect pearl. It's no wonder Nancy couldn't afford blue pearl jewelry.

Paua Suppliers
Paua Mana
Ocean Shell
Fiordland Souvenirs has the world's largest paua shell - 4 metres tall, made of ferro-concrete and lined with genuine paua
The Beading Gem's Journal