A Niihau Shell lei is an intricate, individual, hand-sewn perpetual lei made from the tiny shells which populate the beaches of Niihau Island, and each piece of jewelry is unique owing to the selection of shells and the artisan who creates with them.
The other Hawaiian islands are known for their beautiful flower leis, but on this arid island which lacks the tropical flowers these tiny shells have been collected and strung for adornment for centuries. Captain Cook returned from his first explorations to "The Sandwich Isles" with a Niihau Shell Lei which now resides in the British Museum.
Whole families are involved in collecting the shells from the beaches and they are then sorted by size and color.
Shells are rated in their colors from light to good to strong, with the strongest colors being the rarest and most prized. Both the larger shells (Momi Shells) and the smaller shells (Kahelelani Shells) are found in 8 different colors and rated by color quality. The "Akala" color in the Kahelelani shells is so named because it is the same color as a cactus flower that grows on Niihau.
Once the shells are sorted by size and color they are prepared and pierced according to the syle of lei to be made. Nearly twice as many shells are needed to create a given piece since up to half of the shells can break during the piercing process!
An example of the size of a Kahelelani shell and the skill required to pierce them is shown to the right....