In the small, seaside town of Riverton sits a humble Kiwi business that has been maximising the value of pāua shell for more than 30 years.
Purchased from a commercial pāua diver back in the 90s, Ocean Shell owner, Bruce Shields, says the site is a far cry from its early days when it consisted of a single, rudimentary warehouse, with no shell processing or manufacturing functionality.
“It wasn’t anything like what we do now, but it was a start,” says Bruce. “My brother Richard and I began the business with a focus on pāua shell. Then we got into buying mother of pearl from the Pacific Island pearl farmers in Tahiti, Northern Australia and Indonesia.”
Bruce and his team have bought, dried, graded and sold more than 5500 tonnes pāua shell since the operation began. Today, Ocean Shell is the largest trader of pāua shell both domestically and internationally – purchasing more than 90 percent of New Zealand’s commercially harvested pāua shell each year.
No part of the pāua goes to waste. It is the hallmark of Bruce’s business – sharing the ocean’s beauty in a sustainable way.
“We recognise shells are a limited resource,” Bruce says. “Our philosophy is that when we buy shell, we have to be able to deal with all of it, not just the best parts. We are always aiming for zero waste in our operation.”
Local pāua shell constitutes 30 to 40 percent of the 500 tonnes of total shell that Ocean Shell handles each year.
“That’s the amount that would otherwise be wasted if operations like ours didn’t exist,” says Bruce.
The pāua shell is purchased from commercial divers who land the shellfish for its high-value meat – most of which comes from Southland, Kaikoura, Marlborough, the Wairarapa and the remote Chatham Islands.
Only pāua that meet the Minimum Legal Size of 125mm or more are taken, leaving the smaller juvenile pāua in the water to reproduce and keep the stock healthy. It is considered one of the most sustainable methods of fishing.
“These divers and fishermen aren’t harvesting the shellfish purely for the decorative shell – the shell is simply a byproduct and that is what we are adding value to,” says Bruce.
“We are pleased to be a more significant contributor to the pāua industry’s bottom line these days.”
Once the meat has been landed and processed, the shells are sent to the Riverton factory for sorting. Sorting is especially important for meeting different market requirements, says Bruce.
“There is a lot of variation to deal with in the quality of not just pāua, but all shells. The colour, the environment it comes from, damage caused by pests like marine worms and so on. But that is what makes each shell unique.”
“We believe there is a use for each one, no matter how bad its quality may be. There is value in all of it.”
Even an E-grade – a reject shell – has at least ten percent of its shell that is still useable. These low-quality shells are often suited for fashion jewellery or for lower quality furniture inlay work.
A portion of the sorted pāua shell is sent offshore to be formed into sheets of raw pāua veneer. It is then sent back to New Zealand to be processed further at the Riverton factory. Processed shell materials are an increasing part of Ocean Shell’s business and are sold under its Lumea brand by Bruce’s daughter, Nina, and her team.
Their pāua veneer has become a sought-after material in the Middle Eastern market, where it is primarily used for upmarket inlay in luxurious hotels and palaces for decorative panels and furniture.
“The Emirates Palace Project in Abu Dhabi have very talented craftspeople designing and inlaying our veneer to make decorative panels for their interior fit outs,” says Bruce.
“We have supplied the project around 2500 sheets of white mother of pearl veneer so far.
“It is pretty special to have our shell, all the way from little ‘ole New Zealand, adorning palace walls.”
Pāua veneer was supplied to a mansion in China too, where it was crafted into decorative balusters for an ornate staircase.
Veneer is also used for the BONZE brand of softhead game fishing lures, and in Europe and Japan, Ocean Shell’s solid shell pāua pieces are used for trout fishing.
Bruce says it never fails to surprise him what overseas markets use their pāua shell for.
“Sometimes it is tacky and other times we see spectacular work like the staircase.
“Either way, it’s great to see our product reaching all corners of the world.”
An unexpected boom in the American wellbeing market has brought a surge in demand for whole pāua shells too, due to a trend called ‘smudging’.
“It’s an Indian cultural custom that has become increasingly Westernised, where white sage leaves are burned in shells to cleanse the interior of a home,” says Bruce.
“It’s a completely new trend for the shell market that’s almost come full circle from the days when shells were used as ashtrays!”
Ocean Shell has expanded beyond pāua shell since its founding days and is now considered one of the more significant seashell traders in the world.
“We see ourselves as being in both the raw shell business and the shell materials business now,” says Bruce.
New varieties of shell have been introduced to their trade, including trochus shell from the Pacific Islands, green snail shell from Japan, black mother of pearl from Tahiti and abalone shell from Chile. Trochus shell is supplied purely for manufacturing buttons and mother of pearl is supplied to luxury-brand watch companies in Switzerland to produce high-quality watch dials.
“We recently started buying shell out of abalone farms in South Africa too,” says Bruce. “Our operation stretches around the world.”
Only a small portion of whole shells from international sources go directly to the Riverton factory. The rest are moved from their island location through a complex web of logistics and handling to reach processing facilities in South-East Asia.
“Logistics are arguably the biggest part of the business,” says Bruce.
“You are relying on a chain of transporation that can be haphazard and high in risk. There is a lot of paperwork that comes with trading shells and a lot of red tape too. Then there are the customs processes, sustainability certificates and language barriers.
“To get a shell from a far-flung atoll in Tahiti to a shell factory in Vietnam takes considerable organisation and significant cost.”
Those costs have worsened significantly this year, with lockdowns forcing factories to close, disrupting freight and causing fuel costs to spike.
“Whether we are coming out of it is a big question mark,” says Bruce.
“We have a younger crew here now. They are all really switched on and have a lot of potential. Even so, the business is in a bit of a transition phase.”
His daughter, Nina, is involved too, taking care of the processing and marketing side of the business.
Bruce hopes that Nina will take over the reins when it comes time for retirement.
“But with Covid, everything is up in the air,” he says. “I just hope the business survives this rough patch so it is here for another 30 years’ and remains a strong family business.”
The lack of tourism has also hit the factory hard.
“Pre-Covid, our Riverton factory made giftware and souvenir items for the tourist market. Once the borders closed, that was the end to that part of our business.”
Staff numbers reduced from 22 to just 12.
Demand for pāua shell jewellery has gone too, says Bruce, as there is an absence of travellers passing through airports or visiting souvenir shops to sell to.
The only silver lining has been an increase in demand for shell generated from online sales.
Through its Lumea Brand, Ocean Shell has supplied more pāua shell to craft markets in the USA since the pandemic. It’s one of their biggest new customers, says Bruce.
“Traditionally, very few shops around the world sold shells before,” says Bruce.
“Now, we are seeing more retailers transitioning to online, in part due to Covid forcing people to shop remotely and through other means. That has increased the ability of everyday people to access shells like pāua.
“People are buying small packets of pāua, tumbled pieces that we make here in Riverton, for craft projects. We pack them into small, half-kilogram bags, then ship them off to the States where they are distributed or broken up further.
“Online shopping has been a real life saver for the shell industry in times like these.”
Despite the tough times, Bruce says the satisfaction he gains from the job remains the same.
“What always excited me in this industry is seeing clever craftspeople and designers using our material. I get a lot of satisfaction out that, seeing what can be done with the humble shell.
“It’s a testament to the shell’s journey too. All the hard work – the handling, processing, transportation and trading of the shell – to reveal its beauty and share it with the world.”