Puka shell

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Queen Emma of Hawaii wearing multiple strands of lei pūpū ʻo Niʻihau around her neck in this formal portrait.

Puka shells originally were naturally occurring bead-like objects which could be found on some beaches in Hawaii. These were beachworn pieces of cone snail shells, a kind of seashell. Puka is the Hawaiian word for "hole" and refers to the naturally occurring hole in the middle of these rounded shell fragments.

Numerous inexpensive imitations are now widely sold however, the majority of which are not made from cone shells but from other shells or even from plastic. Some strings of beads are currently sold that are made from cone shells, but the majority of these have been worked by hand with pliers from whole shells and then subjected to some tumble finishing, instead of being formed entirely by natural processes.

The original puka shell beads were very easily made into necklaces, bracelets and anklets because they already had a natural hole which enabled them to be strung like beads. Puka shell jewellery first became popular in Hawaii during the 1960s as an attractive and inexpensive lei which could be made quickly and sold right on the beach where it was fashioned. In the 1970s, they became highly sought, and the prices skyrocketed. The craftsmanship also became more refined and the lei pūpū puka, puka shell lei, were strung in graduated or matching styles, rather than the original random patterns.

Many "legends" of the puka shell were created during this time, which helped sales.

Natural puka shell formation[edit]

A live Textile Cone Snail from Australia

The shell of a cone snail is cone-shaped, and closed at the larger end. When the dead shell is rolled for a long time by the waves in the breaking surf and coral rubble, the narrow end of the shell breaks off or is gradually ground off, leaving only the more solid top of the shell intact.

Given enough time, the tip of the spire of the shell usually also wears down, and thus a natural hole is formed from one side to the other. This shell fragment can be considered to be a sort of a natural bead, and is known as a "puka". Real puka shells are not flat: one side of the bead is slightly convex, the other concave. The concave side of the bead clearly shows the spiral form of the interior of the spire of the cone shell.

Modern substitutes[edit]

Naturally formed rounded cone shell fragments suitable to be used as beads are hard to find in large quantities, so true puka jewellery is now uncommon. Shell jewellery made from naturally occurring puka shells is also now more expensive because of the labor and time involved in finding and hand-picking these rather uncommon shell fragments from the beach drift.

In modern times, discs cut from other types of shell, or even discs of plastic, are used to make imitation puka jewellery. Cone snail shells are sometimes harvested so that they can be chipped down and ground down to make more authentic-looking puka jewellery, which is however still not 100% genuine compared with the originals.

A very glossy patina indicates that the shells in a necklace have been tumble polished. If the edges of the shell beads are chipped, the shells were harvested and manually broken into shape. If the "puka" or central hole is perfectly circular, then the hole was drilled by humans.

See also[edit]



  • Elbert, Pukui (191986). Hawaiian Dictionary. University of Hawai`i Press.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Mattes, Paul Joel (1974). Allan Seiden, ed. Puka shell Hawaii: The story of puka shell jewelry in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiian Puka Shell. 
  • Harnes, Gwen (1998). Courting Puka: The shell's bibliography. Haraway Brothers Press.