Abalone Or Paua Shell Jewellery: How To Make It

Instructions for taking raw paua shell from the beach into a jewellery quality product that can be mounted and sold or used as tourist souvenir.

The Paua is found only in New Zealand coastal waters. The average paua is oval in shape and approximately 5 inches in length. Paua is mainly harvested for its meat, which is very similar to abalone except that the foot is entirely black. The shell is renowned for its deep scintillating blue green and turquoise colours and is often worked into jewellery. Prior to European colonization of New Zealand native Maori made extensive use of paua for jewellery and the decoration of their figure carvings and tiki. Later it has been favoured by Asian craftsmen for wood inlay boxes and carvings, also being worked into rings, pendants and earrings. New Zealand Paua is sometimes referred to as the opal of the sea due to the depth of its colour. The very near relation, Abalone, found in the warmer waters around Australia and America is lighter in colour and generally pinkish and more like mother of pearl.

On New Zealand beaches paua shells are a common sight and can be collected readily. There are three species of paua in New Zealand Haliotis iris H. australis and H.virginea , the larger of the three species found at the southern end of the South Island. Generally the northern shells are thinner than the southern shells and are mostly used for inlay work whereas the southern shells being thicker are used for jewellery work. The exterior of the shell is usually covered in hardened lime with the occasional barnacle but the inside of the shell shows its true colour.

Method of working the shell

The processes for the working of the raw shell into a product for jewellery or inlay work starts by cleaning the exterior lime encrusting the shell. To achieve this the paua shell is immersed into Spirit of Salts (a weakish solution of hydrochloric acid used for cleaning concrete) for approximately 30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the lime. Be careful, as too long in the acid can reduce the shell to a point where it too thin to work. The shell is then thoroughly scrubbed in a bath of water. The remaining residue can then be removed by using a paint-stripping wheel (commonly a hard web of plastic) attached to an electric hand drill. Stubborn encrustations will have to be ground off using a medium grit carborundum wheel on a bench grinder. The shell at this point will now show the colour of the finished item; this can range from deep iridescent blue through to pearly pink. Next buff the shell on a cloth buffing wheel mounted in a bench grinder (in professional terms - an unstitched buffing mop) using a medium polishing stick (the equivalent of a fine cutting compound used on dull car paint). The result is an attractive shell with truly fascinating colours.

If the shell is to be used for inlay or jewellery work the shell can be cut and then shaped with the carborundum wheel. Final polishing again with the buffing wheel and once completed coated with a clear non-yellowing lacquer.

For intricate style jewellery the inside colours of the shell are best and these can make lovely, iridescent pieces. These can then be saw pierced to the shape wished. A diamond-piercing saw is obtainable from a specialist power tool shop or a lapidary hobby shop. A light sanding and polishing with a gritty household cleaner (Ajax or Jif) will produce a gloss that will last well, especially if the jewellery is worn next to the skin as body oils will add to the lustre. A simple way of lacquering the piece is to use clear nail polish - four or five coats will give a relatively hard and lasting finish.

Points to remember:

· The dust from grinding the shells is toxic to the lungs being similarly barbed as fish hooks. A mask is recommended when grinding. In professional workshops a vacuum extractor is used.

· Hydrochloric acid is not a user-friendly substance and should be treated with respect: both as a liquid and the resulting fumes. Try and use in a large airy space with plenty of ventilation. The fumes will also tarnish metal.

Equipment required

· 6" bench grinder

· 6" medium grit carborundum wheel

· 6" unstitched buffing mop

· Fine/medium polishing stick

· Spirit of Salts

· Electric drill

· Paint stripping wheel

· Diamond piercing saw (only needed for intricate work)

· Non-yellowing polyurethane or clear epoxy resin.

© High Speed Ventures 2011