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Dwindling Treasure from the Forbidden Island

Updated on March 7, 2017

Leis can be made of tropical flowers or, for longer lasting purposes, shells, seeds, bird feathers, kukui nuts, bones or teeth. By far the most valuable kind though is the Ni’ihau shell lei. The three species of mollusks most commonly collected for jewelry making are called momi (“pearl”, dove shell), laiki ("grain, rice", rice shell), and, the smallest and most precious ones, kahelelani (“the royal going”, turban shell); it is believed that they are named after Great Chief Kahelelani was also the first ruler of Ni’ihau, the small Hawai’ian island it is all a about in this hub.

Since there are no rivers and thus runoff that immediately pollutes the surrounding waters, it is said that they have a special beauty and natural luster, even surpassing the ones from its neighbor island Kauai. Only immaculate ones without any cracks or holes can be used for making jewelry. Furthermore, Ni'ihau lei shells are not to exceed a maximum diameter of 10 mm/ 3/8“.The strict requirements in addition to extraordinary craftsmanship and lasting quality make these pieces extremely valuable.


Leis of different materials

Collection at Bishop Museum
Collection at Bishop Museum

After many hours of handpicking, they are being dried and manually sorted for type, size, and color. Lei makers or ‘stringers’ carefully pierce holes exactly at the same place on each shell. Tools include special needles, finely sharpened awls and nail clippers. A popular method of stringing the shell lei is called kui, using cotton, or nowadays nylon thread and a needle. Different styles include poe poe (translated as rope or twist), which makes the lei look a little bit like a snake. Other styles are heliconia, crownflower, or lokelani (heavenly rose), where shell patterns give the appearance of various flowers. Combinations of various techniques and shells (kipona) are also very popular. Single strands (pololei) are many times sawn together to form quite impressive multi-strand leis of 25 or more. Small sized cowry shells, which have to be just as immaculate, are used for the clasp.

The shells are being considered as gift of the sea and the knowledge of where to find the best shells at what time is being passed on from generation to generation. For example, better-quality shells can be collected at certain beaches during the winter months, when they are being washed ashore as a result of winter storms. The art has been around for hundreds of years; archaeological findings of a child’s bracelet are estimated from somewhere between 1700 and 1850, which potentially places it before Captain Cook's landing in 1778.

Kahelelani, poe poe style, NOT for sale!
Kahelelani, poe poe style, NOT for sale!
Momi ten strand, for sale
Momi ten strand, for sale

Ni'ihau Shell Lei: Ocean Origins, Living Traditions

That is the name of the exhibit in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which displays 62 most exquisite pieces until April 2014. The collection contains leis from, amongst others, Queen Lili’oukalani and Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Necklaces can also be purchased in their gift shop, as the ten strand momi lei shown above for USD 2395. Considering all the work and extreme craftsmanship behind each lei, the price tag of several hundred to several thousands of dollars is not surprising. Factors that increase the price are the size (obviously the smaller the shells, the more effort is behind it), as well as how common the shell is. Whitish momi are relatively easy to find, whereas red, hot pink or black kahelelani make a lei even more valuable.

Kipona style or combination of momi and kahelelani with cowry clasp

Protecting the tradition

A law passed in 2004 states that at least 80% of the shells must originate from this island in order to call it a Ni’ihau lei shell. Furthermore, it must be made entirely in Hawai’i and be labeled mentioning the percentage of Ni’ihau shells. The law insures authenticity and has most of all the purpose of protecting one of the very few remaining income sources of the people living there.

Ni’ihau is a small, privately owned island, 27 km/18 miles west of Kauai, with only about one hundred inhabitants and declining. Access for outsiders and tourists is very restricted (certain places, under supervision, half-day maximum). Due to its arid climate, the only ranch shut down in 1999, and little to no economy is left.

As more and more people are leaving the island due to the lack of income possibilities, this also means that fewer families are available to collect the shells and provide lei artists on Ni’ihau and Kauai with the material they need. As a possible result, this skill is being passed on to fewer member of this community. To address this issue, the non-profit Ni‘ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation (NCHF) was formed in 2006. Its mission is to educate the public and promote a more direct sale, where most of the profit stays with the artist rather than with the outlet. Through various measures, the goal is to conserve this art and Hawai’ian cultural heritage.

As a side note it remains to be seen, in how far global ocean pollution will influence the unique appearance of the Ni’ihau shells.

Finally, a real sample of Ni'ihau beach displayed at Bishop museum for all of us, who will probably never go there. It shows the challenge of merely finding shells:


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  • La Moana profile image

    La Moana 3 years ago from Hawaii

    Thank you for your comment, Hawaiian Scribe! You are right that there should be at least a few places left that are spared from the masses. I deeply respect the Hawai'ian culture and the 'aina I am lucky to call home.

    Mahalo and Aloha!

  • Hawaiian Scribe profile image

    Stephanie Launiu 3 years ago from Hawai'i

    Mahalo nui for your well-written hub on Niʻihau shell lei. I was told that the women of Niʻihau collect shells in the traditional manner...lying on their stomach on the beach to see the tiny shells. I have never been to Niʻihau, but my grandfather went there. The fewer outsiders that go there, the better. Aloha, Stephanie