Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 19, 2003

Tiny shells bring big money

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

Recently at the North Shore Surf & Cultural Museum, curator Stephen Gould was discussing wave heights with a tourist couple from New Zealand when a man walked in, pulled five tiny seashells from a drawstring bag and quietly placed them on the glass counter.

Homeless and unemployed James Kirk, foreground, at Ali'i Beach in Hale'iwa, is among dozens of people who comb the North Shore daily for sunrise shells. He says he sells them for $20 to $30 each.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

When he was free, Gould turned to the man and asked what he wanted for the multicolored shells. The man — who identified himself as Mike Johnson and said he had no home or phone — said he'd like $150 cash for all five.

Gould promptly obliged, and Johnson departed.

"These shells are like an underground currency up here," said Gould, as he eyed his take and declared that he could probably get $175 for the largest shell alone.

"It's like dealing in dope, only it's legal."

On the North Shore, they're known as sunrise shells because they're easiest to spot early in the morning. Legend has it that they were once the exclusive property of Hawaiian royalty.

They resemble the Shell Oil logo, only they come in seemingly every hue. They're unique to Hawai'i — one of the Islands' rarest shells — and the latest star in the shell market. Their value has soared in the past couple of years. Today, asking prices can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece when ordered online, though locally most retail for around $100 or less. And on the beaches around Hale'iwa, the hunt is on, with drifters, divers, even whole families scouring the sand for what shell experts call the Langford's Pecten.

Most are the size of a dime or smaller, but the biggest measure 1 3/4 inches wide. Anyone lucky enough to stumble across one can turn it into instant cash.

"It's just like finding money," said Hale'iwa jewelry hobbyist Derek Montayre.

'Sunrise' shells: Treasures from the North Shore

The shells of Hawaiian ocean scallops known as Langford's Pecten vary in color and size depending on age, location and ocean conditions. The largest are about the size of a half-dollar, the smallest smaller than a dime.

The prices shown below come from a Web site that offers these shells for sale.

Found in 30 feet of water at Sunset Beach

Found in 8 feet of water at a beach in Hale'iwa

Found in 15 feet of water at a beach in Hale'iwa

Found on a beach in Hale'iwa

Found in 25 feet of water at a beach in Hale'iwa

Source: Frank Cristaudo, pukahawaii.com
Interest in sunrise shells on O'ahu began a couple of years ago. Today, North Shore buyers who pay $8 to $10 for a fingernail-sized shell tweaked from the sand can get as much as $35 for it retail. Perfect specimens are hard to come by, but even fragments are worth money. One Hale'iwa jeweler pays for broken pieces.

"Sunrise shells are real cool," said Brent Lindberg, jeweler at Jungle Gems at North Shore Marketplace. "If I could buy a bunch of them, I would, because they sell.

"I had a guy come in today who wanted to sell me two of them. But when I told him I'd give him $20 for the both of them, he said it's not enough. They want more money for them these days."

Lindberg keeps a bag of two dozen sunrise shells, and has a separate stash of fragments. He said he'll pay $5 for broken pieces because he knows how to transform them into jewelry.

Across the way, at Polynesian Treasures, owner Gisela Cooper sells sunrise shells for $35 to $75 each. A medium-size shell in a puka shell necklace goes for around $90. Cooper gets her shells from people off the street.

"In the last three days, we've had five people come in selling sunrise shells," said Cooper. "We bought some from each one. Everybody's searching for them. And now people are diving for them."

Cooper's husband, Byron, said the attraction is that the shells are endemic to Hawai'i, they make fashionable jewelry, and they can't be mass-produced. He said he doesn't know the sellers.

"We never get their names," he said. "They are usually ... drifter types who find them in the sand and bring them in for extra cash."

Sunrise shells are small scallops of the bivalvia class known as Decatopecten noduliferum. They dwell on the sandy ocean floor to depths of 300 feet. After ocean swells, the shells of dead scallops sometimes wash ashore and can be found along the beach.

They are found throughout the Hawaiian Island chain, but primarily near Kaua'i and O'ahu.

Those acquainted with the subject look for shells that are unchipped, with all seven to nine "paws," both "wings" (ruffled valves at the shell base), and clearly defined "knuckles." Bright colors are favored.

Experts agree they are extremely difficult to find in pristine condition. Most folks say they're tough to find at all. Sellers Byron Cooper and Brent Lindberg have never found one, though they have tried.

"I've met people who have found them, and they say it is exciting," said Azure Caracol, who works behind the counter at Polynesian Treasures. "I've never found one myself."

Some say the place to look is Ke'iki Beach. Others say it's somewhere near Ka'ena Point. At noon Thursday, a half-dozen men could be found poring over Ali'i Beach.

James Kirk said he digs for the shells to stay alive.

"I'm a disabled veteran, homeless and out of work," said Kirk, who held a green felt cloth that contained several sunrise shells he had found lately.

"Right now, the going rate is $20 a shell. You get $30 for the bigger ones. You get a silver dollar-size shell, and people will fight you for it. On the World Wide Web, you can sell them for thousands. Around here, it's pennies on the dollar."

Kirk said he's among dozens of people who sift the sands daily hoping to uncover the elusive scallops. Some days, he finds one or more. Other days, he finds none.

Mike Severns, author of "Hawaiian Seashells," describes the Langford's Pecten as one of the 10 rarest shells endemic to Hawai'i. He wouldn't classify it as a money shell in the category of the Ostergaard's Cowrie, which can wholesale for $1,800 and up.

The fact is, there are many shells unique to Hawai'i, and a number of them are worth more than the Langford's Pecten. But Severns said the current boom is not surprising.

"Every once in awhile, someone will find a shell that hits the market at just the right time, and they do it right, and it will sell all over the world. And then the market gets flooded, and that's the end of it. It happens over and over again."

It happened with puka shells, and it happened with 'opihi shells, Severns said. It even happened to him several years ago, when he discovered where to find the wildly colorful thorny oyster shells. For a time, those became a hot item, and because he was nearly alone in knowing where to find them, Severns was able to sell them for as much as $300 apiece.

"And then the bubble popped," and the price plummeted to around $10, he said. "The shell game is fascinating."

Frank Cristaudo, 29, of Waialua, concedes he might be responsible for the surge in North Shore sunrise shell fever. A computer technology consultant, West Point graduate and former Army captain, Cristaudo started collecting Hawai'i shells as a hobby several years ago and became absorbed in the subject.

Along with his wife, Rachel, he spent months researching Hawai'i's unique shells. Together, they started the North Shore Sea Shell Co., an online jewelry design operation launched officially in January 2000 at www.pukahawaii.com.

Cristaudo does not get his shells from the beach. To find shells that he can sell to a wealthy international clientele for up to $3,000, Cristaudo goes diving.

Through patience and tenacity, he has learned where to find the best sunrise shells on the ocean floor off O'ahu. For obvious reasons, he prefers not to divulge where.

He insists he never takes live scallops. It is prohibited to take live marine animals for sale without a commercial license, according to an official of the state Division of Aquatic Resources.

"All our shells are dead; we don't touch them if they are alive," Cristaudo said. "Why would you kill something just to wear it?"

Although he has heard that the Hawaiian ali'i were once the only people permitted to wear sunrise shells, he has never been able to verify the legend.

Another piece of sunrise lore, Cristaudo said, is that the shells let themselves be found by certain people.

Such a person might be Brian Jennings, a San Francisco tourist who bumped into two picnicking families last week searching in the North Shore sands.

When they explained what they were looking for, Jennings joined the hunt.

"After about 20 minutes, I picked up a shell and said, 'Is this one?' And they started going, 'Yeah! He found one! He found one!' It was small and had a chip out of it. I gave it to one of the little girls, and they gave me a hamburger and a Coke.

"I turned a shell into an instant lunch."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.