I selected this for June’s (and a little of July’s) gemstone because of its relation to a certain frivolous purchase I may or may not make when I am in Hawaii later this week (wahoo!). That, and abalone is just such a happy wonder to look upon.
Polished paua shell. Image by Eyris Pearls, which sells supremely fine paua.
Almost like a nautical geode, the outer shell of the animal is quite homely compared to the vibrant inside. Polishing removes this dull exterior, and the material is cut and shaped into pieces for jewelry and other uses. I’ve got some inexpensive abalone jewelry, and it is one of more economical choices out there. You’ll probably find some in every beach-themed gift shop, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t used in fine jewelry as well. People have also figured out how to culture a rainbow of pearl-like shapes in the shells.
There are over a hundred abalone species around the world, and they often exhibit pearl-like tones, for much the same reason as pearls do. The little ones I find on North Carolina’s beaches are usually greyish green with hints of purple and blue. The blackfoot paua shell, or Haliotis iris is considered to be the most colorful of the species and is native to New Zealand. Haliotis refers to the shape of the shell, and is Greek for “sea ear.” It is the largest of the three species in New Zealand, with the biggest animals being around 6” across, and is actively cultivated for use in jewelry and as a delicacy in New Zealand and Asia.
According to a Maori legend, the paua did not originally have a shell, which made its life difficult. Then Tongaroa, the Maori god of the sea, took pity on the creature and decided to make it a remarkable coat, painted out of the shifting blues of his ocean. Not yet satisfied, he asked his brother Tane, the god of the forest and light, to lend some of his freshest greens, along with the colors of the dawn. Tongaroa then asked his other brother Rongo, the god of agriculture, to become a rainbow and lend some of his violets and pinks. Once the painting was finished, Tongaroa washed the shell in the ocean to make it glisten like the moon.
The paua’s new coat was beautiful but fragile, and the other creatures broke the shining treasure out of jealousy. And so Tongaroa crafted a new shell, this one with camouflage so that the paua looked rough and drab like the rocks of the sea bed. Then Tongaroa used the same paints he had used before but only on the inside, so the paua could still enjoy his gorgeous shell. Tongaroa charged the paua with adding more layers, each one a different blend of color and pattern. And so, the paua goes through life with his art and beauty kept private, and only after he passes on and washes ashore does anyone else see the masterwork.
Half polished paua shell. Image from Violette Jewelry’s website.