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 can 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 and worn shell fragments. These natural beads were made into necklaces.

Numerous inexpensive imitations are now widely sold as puka shell necklaces. The majority of these 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 beads in these necklaces were not formed by natural processes but were worked by hand using pliers to break cone shells down from whole shells into the needed part, and then subjected the rough results to tumble finishing in order to give it smooth edges in imitation of the natural wear and tear a shell receives when tumbled in the surf for long periods of time.

The original natural puka shells were very easily made into necklaces, bracelets and anklets because they already had a 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 made. In the 1970s, this type of shell jewelry became highly sought after, and prices skyrocketed. The craftsmanship also became more refined and the lei pūpū puka, puka shell leis were strung in graduated or matching styles, rather than the original random patterns.

Many "legends" about the puka shell were created during this time, and this also 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 viewed as a sort of a natural bead, and is known in Hawaii as a "puka". Real puka shells are not flat: one side of the bead is slightly convex; the other is 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 jewelry formed entirely naturally 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, beads cut from other types of shell, or even beads 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 really 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]

References[edit]

Books[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.