By Léo Azambuja
After more than 10 years working as a registered nurse, Anuenue Washburn, whose name means “rainbow” in Hawaiian, dropped everything and decided to dive head-first – literally – into her dream career of searching for Hawai`i’s unique sunrise shells and making fine jewelry with them.
And it’s paying off, in every sense.
“I’m just so much happier doing this,” she said of becoming a jewelry maker. “I enjoy making things, being creative.”
Anuenue uses 14-carat gold fill, sterling silver or argentium to hold the prized sunrise shells she collects deep down in the ocean.
Before opening her business, called Malacologie, Anuenue used to craft jewelry as a hobby, and had never sold a piece. Now, only a year-and-a-half after making the move, eight stores on Kaua`i sell her jewelry. This past holiday season, she ventured into craft fairs for the first time and it was so “encouraging” that she wants to do more, despite being “very shy.”
Anuenue grew up on Molokai, “way off in the boonies,” without a TV and making her own toys. When she was 7 years old, her family moved to Honolulu’s concrete jungle. Two years later, they packed up again and moved to Waianae, deep in the valley and far from everything.
About 10 years ago, she and her husband – who also grew up in the country – moved to Kaua`i to raise their kids “happy and simple.” For most of the time that her family has been on island, she kept her O`ahu-based job at a health clinic. But when funding for her position ran out, and she was back job searching, she saw the opportunity and seized the moment.
The sunrise shell, or Langford’s Pecten, is endemic to Hawai`i, and mostly found on Kaua`i and O`ahu. Hawaiian legend says the chiefs would send their servants to look for sunrise shells, which could only be worn by royalty.
The sunrise shell’s most identifiable color pattern is deep red or pink on the lower section, fanning to bright orange and yellow at the wider end. But the colors don’t stop there.
“They come in all different colors; there’s so much variety,” said Anuenue, showing an albino shell on her necklace. “I only found two pure white ones.”
She also found a black one, she said. And then there is the “moonrise” variety, which has a grayish tone. Other shells are green or even blue.
“That’s what makes it fun. You can just match it with all the different gemstones and pearls and corals to bring out the colors,” Anuenue said.
No one knows for sure why they’re called “sunrise.” Some say it’s because you can easily spot the shells at sunrise, because of their colors. Others say it is because if you don’t get to the beach by sunrise, someone else will find the shells before you.
Truth is, many people have combed Hawaiian beaches their entire lives and have never found an intact shell. Depending on the condition, size and color, the shells alone can fetch between $20 and thousands of dollars.
“I only found one or two at the beach, they’re hard to find,” Anuenue said. Together with her husband and her brother, she collects all her shells underwater.
“You have to go deep to find the nice specimens,” she said. “We dive 80 to 100 feet, with scuba tanks.”
Deep in the ocean, they only collect dead shells, she said, and leave the live ones intact.
Back at home, Anuenue’s three young boys help clean up the shells, which can take some effort. It’s a whole family operation, she said.
Anuenue said she designs all her jewelry, putting a lot of thought into each piece.
“I usually only make one or two of the same type and move on,” she said.
She also uses coral, which she buys, she said, because harvesting coral is illegal in Hawai`i.
Lately, she started working with pearls she brought from a trip to Tahiti a couple months ago. But she didn’t dive for those, though, she said, “that would’ve been fun.”
Anuenue’s work is available at Crush Boutique and A. Ell Designs in Kapa`a, Na `Aina Kai and Oskar’s Boutique in Kilauea, Halele`a Gallery in Po`ipu, The Collection in Kalaheo, and Machine Machine Workshop and Island Art Gallery in Hanapepe.
You can also reach her at email@example.com.