The people of the Hawaiian island of Niʻihau are known for their gem-like shell lei craftsmanship.
Niihau, the smallest of the seven Hawaiian Islands is inhabited only by Native Hawaiians. They speak Hawaiian as a primary language. The island is private property, owned by the Robinson family and is off limits to uninvited guests. You can see Niihau from Kauai’s Waimea Canyon Drive when you reach Niihau Lookout.
Each winter, storms wash tiny empty miniature sea-snail shells onto the shores of Niihau. Families walk or bike to beaches and coves where the shells accumulate to gather them.
The tiny shells, called pūpū, in the Hawaiian language, are spread out to dry, then sorted and graded.
There are three types of shells that are further graded by size, color and pattern variations.
Shells Used in Making Niihau Leis
Momi (Euplica varians)
There are 20 different varieties of pearly, oval-shaped momi. They are small, only 3/8 of an inch long with an oil-like sheen. Colors range from brilliant white to dark brown.
Laiki (Mitrella margarita)
Tiny laiki look like lustrous grains of rice. They are only 3/16 of an inch long. Laiki colors range from pure white and ivory to yellowish beige. Some have brown striations. Laiki leis are traditionally worn by Hawaiian brides.
Kahelelani (Leptothyra verruca)
Turban-shaped Kahelelani are the tiniest of the traditional Niihau shells. The name Kahelelani means “pathway to heaven” in Hawaiian. Kahelelani was an ancient Hawaiian chief. Perhaps these delicate shells were named after him. These are the most difficult to string and shell leis made from them are the most costly. They range in color from white with red or brown striations to shades of tans, browns and deep burgundy. Hot pink is the rarest color. A shell lei made with hot pink Kahelelani can cost three times the price of a similar lei.
Making a Niihau Shell Lei
Niihau shell artisans meticulously string these delicate shells into leis and necklaces, creating wearable works of art.
It calls for creativity and patience. It can take years to create just one shell lei.
First a Niihau shell artisan decides on a pattern. This is influenced by the shells that are available. There are many traditional patterns, with a lot of variations and room for creativity. These variations in traditional patterns and the shells used make each lei unique.
The lei maker removes all the sand from the shells. Then she carefully pierces them with a fine-pointed awl. This takes a lot of patience and skill. One out of three shells will break, so the artisan has to be sure to have enough shells to complete her* pattern.
Next, she painstakingly threads the shells together. Shell artisans don’t use a needle. Nylon thread is stiffened with fast-drying cement or beeswax.
Shell necklaces come in different lengths. A classic single-strung white momi is usually 60 to 75 inches long.
Traditionally cowrie shells are added where the ends of the lei are joined together.
For shorter necklaces, a closure is made with a small button-shaped shell, a sundial or a puka at the end of each strand.
Why are Niihau Shell Necklaces Special?
The same types of shells are found on the other Hawaiian Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific. But, some researchers believe that the shells from Niihau have evolved differently. They have observed that Niihau shells hold their color over time and are less prone to deterioration than shells found elsewhere in the islands. And, Niihau has a very limited population, no industry and no river runoff to damage the coral beds where the tiny shells come from.
Niihau shell artisans inherited an unspoiled ecosystem “uninterrupted by man,” Dow said, which might explain the superiority of the Niihau shell.
A 2004 law declared that Niihau shell product must be made 100 percent with shells from Niihau.
Other Hawaiian Shell Jewelry
Shell jewelry is made on the other Hawaiian islands, too.
Makamae O Molokai has beautiful shell earrings and necklaces in her Amazon store, Treasures from Molokai in Hawaii.
These precious gem quality shells were painstakingly collected from the shores of the island of Molokai. They are the same species that have made the island of Ni’ihau so famous. My work has been mistaken for Ni’ihau originals because I learned my traditional sewing techniques from a Ni’ihau Aunty. These are laiki lenalena which are about 1/4 inch each. Made with aloha on the island of Molokai.
These precious gem quality shells were painstakingly collected from the shores of the island of Molokai. They are the same species that have made the island of Ni’ihau so famous. Many hours have been spent gathering, sorting, piercing and sewing the tiny shells. Kahelelani measure one eighth of an inch. You are witnessing the natural beauty of these shells as nothing has been used to enhance them. The beautiful pink color and shiny luster is created by ke Akua (God) together with the sea. Made with aloha on the island of Molokai.
*Shell leis are traditionally made by women.