Paua to the people

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In 1979, Robert Muldoon was prime minister, the Sony Walkman was put on the market, and McDonalds introduced the Happy Meal. It was also the year that, in a Masterton chicken shed, a successful Wairarapa business was born.

NZ Dimensionz is a family-owned business which today is a leading force in manufacturing, wholesaling, and retailing products made from paua shell, glass, greenstone, bone, and more. Many of you will know the business by the name of its retail tourist attraction, Paua World, in Carterton, which sees more than 30,000 visitors through its doors each year. What many people don’t know, however, is that the products created in the factory onsite are sold all over the world, featuring at American tourist attractions like Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Canyon.

NZ Dimensionz directors Matt and Rosie Carter have steered the company growth for the past 40 years. It was the brainchild of Matt’s accountant father Rob Carter, who ran a small exporting company in the late 1970s. “One trip over to the States, Dad found that Paua was sought after – in particular Paua cabochons,” Matt said. A cabochon is a precision shaped and polished insert (gemstone or shell) that is fitted into jewellery. “So, Dad being Dad, on returning to New Zealand, he went straight into working out how we could manufacture them.”

The business started off in the family’s old chicken shed in Masterton, where Matt and his father would build machines to make the cabochons – “because we couldn’t afford to buy the machines”. “In those days, there was very little in New Zealand in the way of lapidary equipment anyway,” Matt said. “I was a regular at the local dump, pulling electric motors out of old washing machines and various other parts to build some of the original machines for cutting and working the shell.”

In the beginning, Matt and his Dad would draw various shapes on the paua shell and cut them out by hand to produce about 200 cabochons each day. But after working with Lambert’s Engineers in Masterton,they soon developed a machine which could precision profile cut 800 cabochons a day. They later developed another which cut 2,000, and then another that cut 10,000 by laser. They became the main cabochon manufacturers in New Zealand, supplying the North American and European costume jewellery market.

In 1981, NZ Dimensionz shifted business to a purpose-built factory in Carterton, where they are today. But within a few years, it all could have been over for the Wairarapa business. In the 1980s the New Zealand Government changed the rule on non-exportation of raw paua shell, and it soon began to be exported over to China. “We knew the writing was on the wall . . . that China would then mass-produce cabochons for a way cheaper price with their low labour costs. ”But, instead of giving up, the Wairarapa business expanded its production scope and diversified. “We set up a wholesale business, to date supplying more than 350 retail outlets around New Zealand and Australia. “Rosie also set up the retail attraction, and we started manufacturing finished fully packaged products,like glass coasters, bookmarks, 3D magnets, keyrings, and started carving products out of cow bone and greenstone.

“We also purchased two small Auckland manufacturing companies; one got us into spin-casting our own white metal jewellery range, and the other making resin plates and clocks. “We did whatever was needed to ensure the business continued to grow. “In any business, you can’t sit back and say, I’ve done it, I’ve made it. “Businesses have to keep growing, keep innovating, and moving forward.” He said he was inspired by several other successful small manufacturers in Wairarapa that all helped to “keep the community going and growing”. Matt said he and Rosie had a team of about 45 staff today to thank for NZ Dimensionz’s continued growth. “Everyone who works here is equally instrumental in keeping this company efficient and successful,” he said.

“Over the years, we have been through several recessions and we have weathered many storms. “The Christchurch earthquake in the middle of a major recession was an interesting one as we literally lost 20 percent of our wholesale business overnight – Christchurch was a major tourist centre prior to the quake. “So, people in our company have upskilled into different jobs and have learned how to use different machines and technologies, creating many different products. “Any business, it doesn’t matter whether you are making something out of paua shell, or metal or glass . . . the three most important things are people, communication, and relationships.” And that seems to be a winning formula for NZ Dimensionz which has several long-term employees who started working at the factory as teenagers, decades ago. In any one day, employees could be trying their hand at spin-casting metal, or operating digital printers and lasers, to assembling jewellery. “It’s never a dull day at work,” employee Charmaine Jones said. She was busy laying synthetic opal in the cavity of small moose-shaped pendants, which would soon be exported to a company in the States they have been working with for the past 35 years.

In fact, while the company has two New Zealand wholesale dedicated product brands, BeachComber and East Coast, the factory also supplies some of their opposition with products and components. Chances are, if you see a souvenir-type paua product at the shops, part of it, or all of it, was made in Carterton. And as if the business had not done enough in its 40 years, it is now in the process of installing a Solar King commercial 42Kw solar panel power supply, which is expected to produce enough energy to run half of the factory operations. It will be one of the largest solar power installations to date in Wairarapa, with 150 panels.

“As our wholesale business is strongly supported by retailers such as Te Papa, Antarctic Centre, and Department of Conservation sites around New Zealand, it will give them greater comfort knowing our products are not only New Zealand-made, but made by using sustainable solar energy,” Matt said. Walking through the factory and seeing all the technology in use, it becomes clear powering half of it with solar is an impressive feat. One of the most recent additions to the factory floor is a water jet cutter used to cut through hard material such as greenstone. The pressure of the water jet is 50,000 pounds per square inch and the water hits the object at a speed faster than sound. They also use the cutter to do work for other Wairarapa companies where precision low temperature cutting is paramount.

“My Dad always used to say the future is technology, technology, technology. In fact, when my Dad really got into gear with something, it was because someone had told him it couldn’t be done,” Matt said. “That was what excited him – the challenge.” Luckily, Matt has the same attitude towards the family business. “Money is a necessary evil . . . you need it to survive, and you need it to make profit in any business or you will not succeed, at least not long-term. “But I can tell you there are easier ways to make money than by running a manufacturing plant in New Zealand, and so I have enormous respect for all those who do. “It’s not about that though. It’s the ultimate challenge of coming up with something new and actually making a tangible item that is profitable and sells. Ideas are everywhere; you just need to think of them.”

 

NZDimensionz Ltd

NZDimensionz was founded by father and son Rob and Matt Carter. Both continue to be extremely active in both companies today. With a strategy for absolute quality and precision the basis was set to cut and polish large volumes of paua shell (New Zealand's abalone) into cabochons (calibrated stones for the jewellery trade) for the world jewellery manufacturing market.

To date the NZDimensionz group of companies is one of the largest suppliers of shell products in New Zealand and employ over 40 people manufacturing a large range of jewellery, gifts and souvenirs from paua shell, mother of pearl, pink mussel shell, New Zealand nephrite jade, bone, glass and various types of resin. Our wholesale division was set up in 1985 to distribute our New Zealand made gift and souvenir range to retailers around both New Zealand and Australia, supplying over 500 outlets to date.

Paua World

Our retail tourist attraction, was set up in 1987 to allow the public to experience first hand the factory in action. With over 50,000 visitors a year, it is the ideal showcase for our products. Complimented by an astounding array of New Zealand souvenirs and Jewellery it is the perfect destination for travellers and locals alike.

 

30 years of jewellery making

For over 30 years NZDimensionz has been creating Cabochons created from New Zealand Paua (Abalone) Shell. This was our beginning into a journey in Jewellery.

Cabochons are calibrated stones for the Jewellery trade, which are precision crafted onsite to have a tolerance of less than .03mm. We still manufacture these for export today.

A picture of a pile of some paua cabochons.
An old paua necklace, with gold koru around the edge.

Fashions and traditions often influence our craftwork, and we have a wide array of machinery and equipment to create our products. Methods such as spin casting and resin work mean we have a multitude of options on hand. Showcasing New Zealand to the world has always been our goal.

As the company has grown larger we have now diversified into making hand carved Bone Pendants, which are very popular.

A bone pendant, carved into the shape of a traditional maori fishhook.
A colourful dichroic glass necklace.

An exciting new component of our manufacturing is Dichroic Glass. With kilns reaching in excess of 800 degrees celsius the resulting jewellery is vibrant, colourful and stunning.

With the advent of new technology and some innovative techniques we are now able to create designs that years ago were merely a thought in our minds.

A fiery-red round spice pendant with a fern pattern.

The story of NZ Paua

Paua - Haliotis Iris

The largest, most common and best known of our species. The shellfish is black and the interior of the shell has cloudy waves of rainbow colours with blues and green being dominant. The shells were used by the Maori to add a gleam of life to the eyes in their carved figures. Today we process them into attractive jewellery and gifts.

Haliotis Iris picture
Haliotis Australis picture

Silver Paua - Haliotis Australis

A smaller species readily distinguished by the silvery lustre of the inside, the cross ridging of the outside and by the yellowish colour of the animal when found alive. It lives in the same localities as the large paua but is not so common.

Virgin Paua - Haliotis virginea

A much smaller and rarer shell, this paua occurs as two subspecies, one from the southern areas and one from the north. The shellfish is a dirty whitish colour and is not often seen alive.

Haliotis virginea picture

How to clean your Paua Shells

Firstly, we have to choose the thickest, best quality shells for cleaning. Some are too brittle to withstand the grinding process required to remove their tough lime exterior. For the shells that are successfully selected, we use a grinding machine with diamond wheels. Each one is hand-held against the grinder to ‘sand’ back the hardened lime exterior. A mask and gloves are worn during the process. The result reveals the beauty of the colours within.

Tips for cleaning Paua at home

You can use a coarse grade of sandpaper (60-150 grit) to remove the outer layer of lime. Make sure you also use a wet and dry paper with plenty of added water, to wipe the shell as you go. This will help to avoid the dust created in the process and leave you with a semi-gloss finish. If you’re after a high-gloss finish, we recommend using a buffing wheel with some form of rouge (these can be purchased at most hardware stores). Be prepared to put a couple of hours into each shell – they do take a while to clean up when using sandpaper.

A picture of a paua shell being cleaned against a grinder at the factory.