Jewelry from Deep in the Sea
IF YOU had been a spectator in September, 1953, at the famous White Deer dance on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, you would have noticed that the two principal dancers wore particularly beautiful necklaces made from colorful abalone shell. The Yurok Hoopa and Karok tribes living in the region between Redding and Eureka near the California-Oregon border are noted for their abalone jewelry. But the necklaces the two dancers wore were not the work of the Indians. They were made by blond, curly-haired Charles Snell of La Jolla, California.
Chuck says the abalone jewelry he has made for the Indians hasn't brought much return in hard cash, but it has brought him a much more satisfactory return in friendship with a fine group of people, as well as fish, acorns, canned cherries and more fresh fruit than he, his wife and two small children could eat.
However, sales of abalone earrings, belts, lapel ornaments, buttons and necklaces like those worn by the Indian dancers have meant real profit when sold to the people of La Jolla and nearby San Diego. The proprietors of several shops have asked Snell to let them sell his unusual jewelry but so far he has refused. Selling the jewelry presents no problem. His only difficulty is finding time to fill the orders.
The abalone shell jewelry is as striking as the silver Indian jewelry which is so popular and yet is far less expensive. Because it is so unusual and fits so well with today's styles, Snell finds that each sale leads to others. Prospective buyers order from sample pieces that he has ready to show them.
Barbara Snell, who enjoys wearing the jewelry Chuck has made for her, is an excellent promoter of his wares. At a recent party where she wore her abalone belt and earrings, four other guests asked Chuck to make similar pieces for them. Such direct sales mean a bigger profit than sales through a retail outlet, even though the volume of sales may be less. Producing on a commercial scale would be a full time job, too, and at present he isn't interested in going into the jewelry-making on that basis.
Not only is his hobby proving profitable, but Snell points out that it has the added advantage of combining his two chief interests, skin diving and archaeology. The shells are a by-product of diving expeditions while the work of Indian craftsmen, both prehistoric and modern, has supplied the inspiration for the designs he uses. His belts, made from polished shell disks strung on thong, resemble the Navajo concha belts of silver disks. Chuck's "fish hook" earrings are copied from actual shell fish hooks made by the prehistoric Indians of the La Jolla region.
ABALONE (pronounced ab-a-loney) is a member of the same mollusk family that includes clams, oysters and muscles. But the abalone, which is found on the Pacific coast, differs from the more familiar members of the family. It has only one shell, which completely covers the upper side of the animal while the undercover lower side clings tightly to rocks or reefs. Abalone steaks are such a valued delicacy among Californians, and wherever the frozen steaks can be purchased, that they have become quite rare near the shoreline. Commercial and non-commercial divers now pursue them to depths of 100 feet or more. The thick, iridescent shells which shimmer with a hundred shades of green, blue and red vary in size according to age and kind. The red abalone may grow to twelve inches while the green seldom exceeds nine inches and the black is somewhat smaller. It is the green abalone shell which Chuck finds most satisfactory for jewelry. The black shells are almost too hard to work and the red shells, which are very thick, require a great deal of grinding, a monotonous job at best.
Although abalones are native to the west coast, anyone looking for an unusual and profitable hobby can obtain the shell from California dealers. California law prohibits the shipping of abalone meat out of the state, but there is no restriction on shell or shell products. The largest San Diego dealer will sell suitable shell for 10 cents a pound. Freight to Chicago for 100 pounds, the minimum quotation, is less than $7; to New York, about fifty cents more. When you know that Snell has received as much as $25 for a single polished shell, this initial expense doesn't seem extravagant, particularly when 100 pounds of shell are enough to fill a good, big gunny-sack.
IN DESCRIBING his technique for making abalone shell jewelry, Chuck starts with the time-honored phrase, "First catch your abalone," although even residents of the California coast would probably prefer to get their shells in some easier way than diving for them as he does.
"Then," Chuck continues, "eat the steaks." (In this case, you can eat your hobby and have it, too). "Let the empty shells sit around in your back yard," he goes on, "until a day when there's a nice breeze blowing. Ignore any protests from your wife and scrub the shells clean in the kitchen sink. Bring your work table and grinder out in the yard, put on a respirator and get to work." The respirator is necessary because some people find the dust from the abalone shells irritating to the nasal passages. Hardware stores sell adequate respirators for about $1.50. If you're lucky, you may find one at a surplus store for twenty-five cents.
Not all shells can be used because they are sometimes pierced by the holes of a marine worm which attacks abalone. However, surface worm-holes don't necessarily mean that the shell is unusable. Chuck says he judges the soundness of the shell by weight. If it is heavy and solid-feeling it can usually be ground to a good surface, even though there may be so many exterior wormholes that the surface looks more like sponge than shell. Any reputable dealer will do his best to send you only sound shells.
CHUCK CUTS the disks for buttons and belts from a whole, rough shell using a slightly modified hole-saw on a mandrel that fits any standard drill press. Stores which carry power tools can supply you with mandrels for about $2.50. Hole-saws range in price from $2 to $4.50 according to size. The modification of the hole-saw is simply a matter of removing the bit in the center. This makes a tubular tool with a saw-toothed edge which, fitted on the mandrel, cuts the disks. If the disk doesn't drop out, as it usually does, Chuck recommends slowing the drill and tapping the side of the saw gently. This loosens the dust that sometimes binds the cut disk to the side of the saw and the disk will fall out.
Thanks to nature, the interior surface of the shell needs no grinding. To grind a smooth surface on the exterior of the disk, Chuck prefers a used carborundum grinding wheel. This is worn to a rounded edge, a better shape for dressing the shell than the angular edge of an unworn grinding wheel. Surplus stores usually ask about twenty-five cents for worn wheels. Final polishing of both surfaces of the disks is done with rouge and a standard buffing wheel.
The polished disks are ready to use when the holes are drilled. This can be done with a drill bit, or even a nail under power. The buttons Snell makes have two holes; the belt disks, four.
The belt disks are strung on a single piece of acid-tanned thong which costs twenty-five cents for seventy-two inches, a satisfactory length for most belts. The wearer can easily adjust them to the desired size by varying the space between the disks. It is important to use acid-tanned thong because oil-tanned hide leaves a stain on clothing. The size of the belt determines the number of disks required, of course, so Chuck prices them at fifty cents a disk. He finds that it takes approximately fourteen links for a twenty-four to twenty-six-inch waist.
He sells the buttons for twenty-five to fifty cents each, depending on the size.
A moment's study of the accompanying photograph of the fish-hook earrings, which sell for $3.50 a pair, will show you that they are basically disks, like the buttons and belt links, but with the center removed. Using a ¾-inch hole saw, Chuck makes this center cut before removing the blank from the shell with a 1½-inch hole-saw. He grinds the blank into the desired shape on the carborundum wheel, using the sharp outer edge of an unworn wheel to make the angle cuts. The fish-shaped earrings and lapel ornaments are shaped on the carborundum wheel from a rectangular blank sawed from the rough shell with a hack saw. The lapel ornament sells for $2.50 and the earrings for $2.75.
Such irregular shaped pieces must be sanded by hand and then given a thin coat of brushing lacquer instead of being polished on the buffer as the buttons and belt disks are.
Chuck has made only one square-linked belt and finds it a much more difficult project than the belts made from round disks. No hole-saw is large enough to cut disks that can be ground to the square form, so each must be cut by hand. He used a diamond saw for this, although he says the hacksaw would be just as satisfactory.
PRODUCING A finished piece of this beautiful and unusual jewelry actually takes far less time than would seem possible. Chuck estimates that he can make a complete belt in two or two-and-a-half hours, a pair of earrings in an hour and a dozen buttons in 45 minutes. He has kept his prices comparatively low because abalone is easily available on the west coast. In other sections of the country, similar jewelry could undoubtedly demand a higher price.
When I asked Chuck how he happened to start making the jewelry, he grinned and said, "That will take a bit of thinking. I don't believe I can remember a time when I didn't like fussing around with something of the kind. 'Way back in grammar school I made things out of bone. Then I started using plastic. The first time I made anything with abalone shell was when I was in the seventh grade. I made an inlaid box for my mother. The next thing was an inlaid black-walnut jewel box I made for my girl." He laughed, "It was so pretty I never gave it to her." He didn't explain what effect this had on the youthful romance, but went on:
"When I started skin-diving and bringing up my own abalone, it seemed an awful waste of beautiful shell to throw it away, so I started figuring out ways I could use it. Once in a while, you find an abalone pearl and they make beautiful jewelry. But they're pretty rare, and the shells have the same wonderful colors. I give away a lot of my work, but I seem to sell all I want to sell. It's just laziness," and here he struck a note that will be familiar to most hobbyists, "that keeps me from making and selling a lot more."
So, if you're ever in northern California in September and you are lucky enough to be one of the few non-indians to witness the beautiful White Deer dance, look for a particularly striking abalone necklace worn by an Indian dancer. Chances are it will be the work of Chuck Snell of La Jolla.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.