Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.
What it is: If you were a youth in the 1970s, ’90s, or even early, early aughts, then I don’t have to tell you what a puka shell necklace is — but I will anyway! Puka shells are small, white pieces of shell that are strung along a chain, usually choker length or slightly longer; the necklaces most offer sit just on or slightly above the collar bone. There are a variety of styles: full, smooth shells (sometimes called cowrie shells, which more or less just refers to a series of shells); jagged, bright white chunks on a chain; small, circular, evenly sized bits.
An important note about the word “puka”: It’s not a type of shell, but actually the state of a shell. Or, of anything. Anything Hawaiian at least. The word “puka” means hole, so while the term “puka shell” conjures images of very specific white shell necklaces, it technically means any sort of shell necklace, and there are many.
Despite the variations, some 20 years ago, the jewelry item became associated with “bro” or “surfer” culture. Most recently, puka shell necklaces can be found as a prerequisite for any VSCO girl worth her weight.
Where it is: Today, puka shell necklaces are showing up in retailers like Free People, Urban Outfitters, and Madewell — though they have new names, like the Aloha Necklace, the Waikiki Waves Shell Necklace, and the Pacific Palms Shell Necklace. You can also find them all over Etsy, of course. In February, Gigi Hadid was spotted wearing one in Paris.
Why they’re everywhere: Puka shells are a staple of the VSCO girl look, a teen trend also defined by Fjallraven backpacks, Hydro Flask water bottles, and oversized shirts. VSCO girls — named after the photo editing app — have exploded over the last few months, taking hold of Gen Z. But the trend has even deeper roots. For millennials (and old millennials), puka shells became prominent in the ’90s and very early aughts, the style of which the aforementioned VSCO hugely borrow from. California culture and style was king: Shows like Laguna Beach and The OC solidified the popularity of casual-yet-spendy beach wear, and stores like Pacific Sunwear (PacSun to those of us in the know), and Hollister brought this fashion to the masses.
But that is simply how I, and surely many dear readers, were introduced to puka shells. Their origins are far less suburban. Janelle Kienow has been collecting and making shell necklaces (as well as speaking about their cultural significance) in Hawaii for nearly 15 years. She has a shop called Kaui’i Curators, and splits her time between islands. When I ask her to talk about the differences between puka shell necklaces as she’s come to know them and puka shells as she and I might remember them from our teenage years, she laughs, because they couldn’t not be more different.
Prior to the puka popularity of today, and even the ’90s and early aughts, there was a moment in the ’70s when celebrities drove interest in them. “I believe that it was the 1974 September issue of Modern Screen Magazine where Elizabeth Taylor was photographed on the cover wearing a puka shell necklace from shells that came from McClure Beach,” Kienow says. Taylor had long been a fan, to the point that she was often asked about the jewelry. David Cassidy of Partridge Family fame also had an affinity for them, so much so that he became something of a puka shell poster boy. As a symbol of high ’70s fashion and a total teen heartthrob, Cassidy had a heavy hand in helping puka shell necklaces become a style staple of the era.
But that is simply when many white people from the continental US were introduced to puka shells. “Before the puka shell craze, shell jewelry had been sacred and largely completely unknown,” she says. Hawaiian royalty would give them as gifts to queens and kings from around the globe. “The exchange of gifts which was a huge part of Hawaiian culture,” Kienow says.
When the jewelry became popular and tourists and entrepreneurs alike started scouring beaches for the shells, Kienow says it was probably an odd sight for locals (and these days, they’re dodgy about sharing shell-hunting locations with outsiders). A 2003 story in the Honolulu Advertiser titled “Tiny shells bring big money” encapsulates Hawaiians’ wonder at their sudden cache. That wonder isn’t misplaced, because people didn’t and likely don’t really know what puka shells are exactly.
While “puka” may be a Hawaiian word, many of the puka shell necklaces on retailers’ in-store and online shelves are not from Hawaii. “In the Philippines, they started taking these round or triangular shell bits and then they would just stamp a section of shell with a hole in the center of it,” Kienow says. Once the stateside demand for the jewelry grew, markets outside of Hawaii built up to meet it.
Kienow explains the differences between authentic and imported puka shell necklaces: The real deal will have a spiral marking on the inside, and the “puka” will be natural, not hammered. Factors like luster (being shiny and smooth rather though dull and rough) are important to collectors and makers who know what they’re looking for, and the appearance of a shell can indicate not only the biological health of the sea, but even what island it came from.
Clifford Nae’ole is a native Hawaiian and cultural adviser for the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua. His job is to help the hotel respect and honor cultural traditions, and help visitors learn that there’s more to Hawaii than luaus.
Nae’ole also points out that part of what makes puka leis special is that they’re so unlike what much of the Western world considers precious gems. “Hawaii was not a place where rubies, gems, diamonds, or gold was to be found,” he says. “Our jewels were shells, flowers, seeds, nuts, feathers. From these gifts of nature, we created our style of jewelry.” Perhaps the most precious Hawaiian jewel was ivory from whale teeth and boar tusks.
“It takes tons of patience to find the shells, ensure they conform to the design, clean them, and saw them for the finished product,” Nae’ole explains. Shells from the island of Ni’ihau can be worth thousands of dollars. “There seem to be a lot of imitation puka shell necklaces coming from elsewhere in the world,” he says.
He is correct: For many consumers, random pieces of white sea-stuff suffice. Many customers don’t know the difference and probably wouldn’t care even if they did.
“The shape of a true puka shell is never going to be anything but round with a slightly adjusted kind of lip near the top of where the aperture would have been when the shell was full,” Kienow explains. But “puka shell” has come to be nearly meaningless, a general term for shell necklace (usually white, usually hitting the collar bone or above) from Hawaii (or … an island somewhere).
“From a fashion perspective almost all Hawaiian jewelry has ‘puka’ tagged in keywords,” Kienow explains, and for good reason. It’s the term consumers gravitated toward and why shouldn’t Hawaiian-makers profit off that? Of course, as long as they were white and resembled a shell, US consumers were happy.
Kaarin Vembar is an editor at Retail Dive and the co-host of the Pop Fashion podcast, and she also remembers the puka shells of yesterday, and has her own ideas about why they became so popular. Sure, there were overall fashion trends, but also: their cost. “They were a necklace that was affordable. You could get them at different price points; you could get something pretty fancy, but you could also go to a beach town and pick one up for a couple bucks — you could get one that was made of plastic. There was a low entry point into the trend.”
In addition to being budget-friendly, puka shells were also inclusive. “It was a fashion accessory that boys could wear. I don’t remember during that time period that guys around my age were experimenting with accessories, but there was something about the nature of that necklace where lots of different types of people, both men and women, decided that they could get in on this trend,” says Vembar. “Regardless of what social group you were part of you could still wear one if you wanted to.”
Despite being steeped in celebrity history and ’90s-era popularity, puka shells became tragically uncool. But they are far from the only fashion item that befell this fate. Vembar points out that crocs experienced a similar trajectory, and that while choker necklaces (also popular in the ’90s) weren’t quite as wildly mocked as puka shells, they certainly fell from grace, only to return in recent years. The puka shell necklace is sort of an extension of this particular trend, too.
Generally speaking, the ’90s are back in a big way, and in large part that’s simply a result of fashion’s cyclical nature. Layne Cross, Stitch Fix styling supervisor, and Jenny Herr, the company’s fashion and trend manager, say that typically, it takes roughly 20 to 30 years for styles to circle back again, but social media is speeding the process up, and causing the return to spread further.
“This is the first time millennials are seeing trends they lived through come back into fashion. The ’90s was a time rife with unknowns, exciting technological advances, and the wild mystery of Y2K!” Cross and Herr explained via email. “It was also an era where clothing became a true expression of who a person is on an individual level. Grunge inspired trends like slip dresses and oversized denim, perfect basics such as the white fitted tee and Levi’s 501s that Jennifer Aniston made popular, bike shorts, headbands, are seeing a second life, and there isn’t a sign of it slowing any time soon.”
Current media is certainly promoting ’90s culture, too: Four Weddings and a Funeral was treated to (a poorly reviewed) revival and PEN15 was basically a flashback episode for many women my age. Target has gone all-in on the trend, not only with ’90s revival lines but also a Friends collection; Pottery Barn, too, has a Friends home collection. “A new generation is discovering Friends!” Vembar points out. “A lot of people are being introduced to that show for the first time, and seeing that fashion and what the cast wore in that show — it was so cool.”
But there’s more to it than the natural swing of the fashion pendulum (and a very popular TV show’s 25th anniversary and presence on Netflix); there’s something of a “return to nature” mentality involved. “I think there’s probably something happening where we’re in the middle of understanding our situation with the natural world. There’s a crisis happening and we’re deciding to hold on to this thing, I don’t necessarily think it’s a coincidence.”
Beyond fashion’s non-stop trend toward nostalgia and socio-environmental factors, there is also a feeling of fun that reliving the puka shell necklace brings. “I think there’s kind of this yearning to go back to something that we know and feels familiar, because things are so chaotic in our world right now,” says Vembar. “Going back to the music that we loved in high school, back to these fashions that we knew, back to these places that feel familiar…because things are so unsteady, going back to a world and to what we think was a better time, whether it actually was or not, is comforting.”
I can’t help but agree: At first glance, pitting out in the back of my parents’ un-air-conditioned minivan, fuzzy wrap-around headphones heating up my head, puka shells sticking to me, self-loathing and awkwardness at full tilt — the memory is a preteen cliche. Was it a better time? I was 13, of course not. But damn if it wasn’t fun, and god bless anyone who can resurrect similar feelings with puka shells.
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