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Paua to the people

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, mother of pearl, greenstone, bone, and other materials.

 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       developeda 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 middleof 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 outof 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.” 

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