Teen idol David Cassidy‘s Hawaiian puka shell necklace single-handedly propelled the fad into fanaticism when the shell choker glared brightly against his tan chest, framed by his long, softly feathered hair.
This surfer/rocker look drove the girls crazy, and every girl either had the poster of David and his necklace on their bedroom wall or tuned in weekly for his hit TV show, The Partridge Family. Before you could say “oklawakalwaiya”, every boy across the nation draped a puka shell choker across his neck in hope of being as cool and desirable as the young heartthrob.
The puka shell is actually the shell of a cone snail, and the term “puka” actually stands for the centre hole in the characteristic disk. The cone snail has a cone-shaped shell for its home, and when the snail dies, the shell is worn down by the tossing of the waves against other shells and sand.
The shell tip eventually breaks under the pressure and sanding, leaving the thick bottom behind. The bottom centre of the shell is also weak (because of the way the snail grows inside) and is the first to wear with continued friction. It is at this point that the puka shell is collected, polished smooth in the ocean, with a hole already in the centre. The shells only need to be strung to create the necklace.
Authentic pukas have been gently polished by the sands and surf and have a dull finish. Their colour need not be only white, but can range from orange shades to blue-grey or purple brown. But white was the preferred colour during the 70s.
Authentic puka shells were highly sought after, but as they were rare and expensive, imitation pukas were sold by the bucket load. These artificial pukas were real shells, but their shape and polished smoothness was artificially enhanced.
The surf craze of the 70s originally popularised the puka for California kids, but when David Cassidy showed off his collection, the massing hordes all wanted to wear the little white discs around their necks.
Men don’t usually wear jewellery, but during the 70s, disco had gold medallions, and everyone else had the tribal-style puka. Authentic or imitation, as long as you had a surfer-style shell, you were cool.