Gorgeous Photo courtesy of http://captainkimo.com
Gorgeous Photo courtesy of http://captainkimo.com

It’s a child’s activity, really.  Or, at least I thought it was.

Sure, I was moderately aware that searching for and collecting sea shells on Hawaii beaches or while snorkeling would be a hobby for some adults.  The more intact the shell was the better.  The rarer the shell, the better.  Found one that you hadn’t seen before?  Bonus!  Add it to the collection.

I had no idea, though, that some sea shells were worth big money.  I had no idea that there were whole families and even homeless people who were up before dawn every day and combing beaches on Oahu’s North Shore in search of sea shells to sell.

Enter the sunrise sea shell and my awakening to the fact that anything that is rare, and with a good story behind it, can be sold.  And sold for a lot of money.

I won’t say that it is a “ludicrous” amount of money.  Even if some of the shells are going for around $100 for a sunrise shell about sunrise2the size of a quarter.  Hell, something’s “worth” is only determined by the amount of money that someone is willing to pay for it.

There is basically a small economy of sorts at work with finding sea shells on the Hawaiian Islands.

Right now the rage is sunrise sea shells. Before it was the puka shell.  That rage was back in the 1970’s.  After that it was ‘opihi shells.  It even happened with thorny oyster shells.  So much so that some people who knew where to find them could sell them for up to $300 per shell.

And then, the rage was over.  What was once a $300 find with which to make a living quickly became a $10 surprise that was hard to sell.  The people who were buying the shells and making jewelry from them would have to sell them at a profit, after all.  Going got tough…

Now…the sunrise sea shell is booming.

Legend Behind Sunrise Shell Necklace

Jewelry made from the sunrise shells were once worn only by Hawaiian Royalty.  Those were the only ones that were allowed to wear them.  It is said that to find one will bring the lucky-looker good luck and prosperity.  But is that enough to dissuade someone from selling it for a Benjamin?

I spoke to a young Air Force officer (yeah, I know.  But we Army guys like the AF ladies!) who said that she currently has 2 sunrise sea shells his safely away in a hiding spot.


Sara Buda is a critical care nurse, Air Force Lieutenant, and very amateur surfer (“I actually know how to surf!”).   Ms. Buda scoffed when I asked if I could have her sunrise seashells.  She is holding tight to those shells because she knows how valuable they are and she is currently looking for someone to craft some necklaces out of her shells.  And then shell probably sell it to an unsuspecting tourist for too much money.  (Air Force girls, tsk, tsk)

The point is:  When you have  a sunrise sea shell you either sell it or you hold tight to it.  You don’t usually give them away to kids like someone would do catching  a foul ball at a professional baseball game.

Sunrise sea shells are from small scallops of the bivalvia class.  Their scientific name is Decatopecten noduliferum.

Wait, You Mean It’s Just a Damn Scallop?!

What the hell!  I grew up eating and shucking scallops.  Heck, I cooked scallops the other day in a lovely garlic, butter, and white wine sauce.  They were delectable.

You mean to tell me all this fuss is over a scallop shell?  WTH!

Yeah, but it’s a real pretty scallop shell.  They have a  great story behind them with that whole “promise of good luck” and the Hawaiian Royalty thing.

Oh, and they’re really, really rare. Like, near impossible to find in the best of conditions in the water.  Then you have to get lucky and actually find one that washed ashore.

The shell was actually listed as one of the top 10 rarest shells that are endemic to Hawaii in Mike Severn’s  book, Hawaiian Seashells.  Yet, he doesn’t call the shell a “money shell” even though a great specimen can sell for $90 to $300.  For instance, a real “money shell” would be Ostergaard’s Cowrie which can sell for around $1,800 or more.


The Shells are More than that to Some  

Tourists and lovers of seashell jewelry may think the shells and the necklaces made from them are pretty.  They may even recognize that they’re really rare and special.  To others though, like the homeless and local families that comb the Hawaiian beaches of the North Shore or Kaena Point every day, they are a meal on the table or the electricity staying turned on for one more day or two.

If they’re lucky they’ll find a few a month.  They’ll be able to buy a couple days of groceries with them.  Maybe even pay water bill.

Whatever the reason people are in search of the sunrise seashells, whether to buy or sell, it would seem that everyone has a little bit of good luck when someone actually finds one.