For a short period in the late 1700s, following James Cook’s voyages to the South Seas, there was a demand for distinctive New Zealand shells from British and European shell collectors. Some of the desired specimens included pāua (Haliotis iris), top shells (Calliostoma punctulatum, C. selectum and Cantharidus purpureus or C. opalus), Cook’s turban (Cookia sulcata) and the most prized – the circular saw shell (Astraea heliotropium). None of these is particularly rare, and they are no longer highly sought after.
Information and clubs
A wealth of information is available for people interested in learning about New Zealand shells. The first popular book on shell collecting, Beautiful shells of New Zealand, appeared in 1908, and many others have followed. The definitive reference work is A. W. B. Powell’s New Zealand Mollusca (1979).
Important reference collections of fossil and present-day shells are held by Auckland Museum, Wellington’s Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences.
There are three shell clubs in New Zealand – at Whangārei, Auckland and Wellington – where enthusiasts identify shells and organise field trips. In the 21st century there is an emphasis on photographing and studying live shellfish in their natural habitat, rather than taking live specimens for personal collections.
The largest display of pāua shells is at Pāua House, once a well-known tourist attraction in Bluff, Southland, and now on display in Canterbury Museum. Fred and Myrtle Flutey had transformed their bungalow by covering it with polished pāua shells.
In the 1980s the owners of ‘shell wonderland’, Nola and Berry Edwards, ran a tearoom and museum that displayed numerous objects decorated with shells, including the family car.