Step into the Riverton business that has become the world’s largest supplier of South Pacific ocean shell products, to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood and Gucci, and host Bruce Shields happily shows you a scrubbing mechanism.
“This,’’ he says, “is really hi-tech.’’
No it isn’t. It’s a scrubbing brush, screwed upside down over a basin.
Bruce is smiling. This might be just what you’d expect from an outfit with 30 years of Kiwiana pāua production history behind it, but as it happens, a great deal of far more sophisticated work is underway under the same roof of the Ocean Shell/Lumea business.
And an even greater deal of international logistics is co-ordinated from there as well.
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But it’s still Riverton, which means pieces of rare beauty, product made with real skill, have to cohabit with the more rustic aspects of the operation. In this Bruce is a cheerfully unflinching guide.
“We buggered around with water blasters,’’ he continues, holding up a concave shell. “Got water over everybody.’’
So the brush suffices. They just fill the bin with water – heated, if it’s a cold day – and once you know what you’re doing you could clean 1000 shells a day, no sweat. It’s hard to imagine a modest process.
Whereas, you don’t have to take too many paces from that basin to find work of exquisite precision under way to satisfy the demands of one of the more high-end clients.
Says Bruce’s daughter Nina, who handles the marketing, some clients like Gucci and Vivienne Westwood are more about design, whereas Louis Vuitton’s requirements, for the veneer to be used in handbags, are more from the technical side of the luxury market.
“Their designers are engineers – the fact we can supply them with a product they can accept is quite an achievement from a tech standpoint. They are very . . .’’ she pauses for the word . . ‘’precise’’.
Some of the products under their Lumea brand have wound up in an Emirates palace in Abu Dhabi, and in a Chinese mansion.But this is an outfit where you might also notice a bucket of shells specifically sorted and earmarked for a far less affluent clientele – Tokelauan carvers wanting just the right sort of white to make bridal gifts.
Those guys aren’t a huge market. One artisan might want half a dozen shells, or fewer, at a time. But the Ocean Shell ethos is that this is a finite resource and none of it need, or should, go to waste.
Some of the shells might end up providing just a bit of glitter for the sides of swimming pools, or kitchen tiles, or softhead fishing lures, or just strips of pāuafor home crafter market – or sent to Bethlehem for the locals to carve into nativity souvenirs.
Bruce and his more technically minded brother Richard bought the business from a local paua diver 30 years ago. Nothing terribly clever; they’d clean and dry the shell, grade it appropriately – which, to be fair, is a real skill – and off it went.
“It was a fairly basic operation,’’ Bruce says, “putting a few paua shells in bags and selling them to a broker in Wellington or Auckland, who sold to somebody in Hong Kong, who sold to somebody in China . . . .’’’
Involvement in the souvenir trade made sense, but then came a response to market need. International clients wanted to know if they could source more widely. Ocean Shell was dealing with product from the likes of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and has become the preferred go-to point for its network of suppliers and buyers.
Busy though the Riverton plant is, the business is nowadays as much about connections as craftsmanship; arranging sales, production and movement around a host of different countries, negotiating paperwork and red tape.
There have been plenty of hard times and challenges. The supply of locally sourced paua has been seriously diminishing given the demand for in-the-shell exports of paua meat, both fresh and frozen.
And the Covid-closed borders gutted the tourist souvenir market for them,staff numbers dropping from 22 to 12.
Hence the mounting emphasis on finding and satisfying high-end clients, a task that has been progressing with demonstrable success.
“We just approach it on the basis we want to sell less for more,’’ Bruce says.
But isn’t it the case that Ocean Shell has been supplying more than 1000 separate products?
“We’re on a mission to reduce that.’’
Bruce produces for scrutiny a perfectly attractive coat hanger, prettily inlaid with a bit of paua bling.
So what’s the problem? People will reasonably enough want to hang clothes over it, he says, so what’s the point?
Not every idea is a winner. But at a time when resilience is such a byword, it’s an informed and ardent capacity for diversification that has marked Ocean Shell/Lumea as such a distinctive operation. If seashells can turn out to be extraordinarily flexible in their applications, why can’t businesses?