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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 8, 2001

Island Style
Treasures of Ni'ihau on a string

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

If you're looking for Ni'ihau shell lei, you'll find they come in a variety of colors.

Honolulu Academy of Arts

Pupu O Ni'ihau: An Exhibition of Ni'ihau Shell Lei

Including lei worn by Hawaiian queens as well as traditional Ni'ihau wedding lei, multi-strands 60-75 inches long.

Guest curator: Linda Moriarty

Sunday-Sept. 30

Hawai'i Gallery, Honolulu Academy of Arts

Lei-making demonstrations: noon-5 p.m. Saturday, academy courtyard


Lei are among our most important and appreciated accessories in the Islands, worn at all the special times in our lives. Although flowering trees and vines provide most Island people with a wealth of flowers with which to make lei, there are few trees, shrubs and flowers on the arid island of Ni'ihau. For generations, the people on that island have looked to the ocean for their lei.

Linda Moriarty is arguably the state's expert on Ni'ihau shell lei. She wrote the book "Ni'ihau Shell Leis" (University of Hawaii Press, 1986) and is guest curator of an upcoming exhibit on Ni'ihau shell lei at the Honolulu Academy of Arts (see box).

During the winter months, from October to March, high surf from the north brings an abundance of the tiny treasured shells to the shores of Ni'ihau's remote beaches, said Moriarity in an interview for this story, during which she explained the background of the lei that have become so treasured.

For generations, people on the islands have walked the beaches collecting the shells known as pupu o Ni'ihau. The shells are so tiny that, during an average day of searching, a single picker might fill a small baby-food jar; on a great day, an 18-ounce jelly jar.

Live shells — those occupied by living creatures — are never picked for lei. Shells are harvested only along the debris line where they collect after their hosts are already dead.

While similar shells are also found on other Hawaiian islands and some Pacific island groups, these lack the luster of the ones from Ni'ihau. Kaua'i shells, for instance, are stained reddish brown because of the soil that's carried to the ocean from that island's rivers. O'ahu's shells are dull by comparison to those of Ni'ihau.

Making the lei

The making of a Ni'ihau shell lei is labor intensive. Collecting enough shells to match perfectly can take months or even years, depending on the type and color needed.

Before the shells are strung, they have to be sorted by type, color and size.

Every grain of sand must be removed from the aperture; the artisans use a sharp-pointed awl, often made from recycled materials, such as an umbrella spine or bicycle spoke.

Next, the lei makers pierce a hole in the shell, placing it on the basis of the stringing style they plan to use. Even with extreme care to gauge the exact amount of pressure, one out of three shells is broken during the piercing.

Rather than using needles for stringing as is common with flower and seed lei, the stringers cut nylon thread into the desired length, then dip the end in quick-drying cement to form a hard point to serve as the needle.

After the pupu o Ni'ihau are strung, the ends are knotted and a kauno'o shell (Heliacus variegatus), button or puka shell is placed there to secure them. The loose ends of the thread are tucked into a cowry (Ni'ihau people call this the poleholeho or night cowry, various members of the Cypraea family of shells). The cowry is then packed with pieces of cotton and cemented. These end shells are chosen to complement the style and color of the lei. The traditional fastening is a hook and eye cemented onto the cowry.

The three species

Lei pupu o Ni'ihau are made from three species of shells:

  • Momi or dove shell, oval in shape with a shiny surface, ranging from pure white (called ahiehie, meaning "silver gray, or faded," a word particular to Ni'ihau) to dark brown.
  • La'iki or rice shell, ivory-colored, often with striations of light brown or yellow; la'iki (the word is a Hawaiianization of the English word "rice") is thick and difficult to pierce.
  • Kahelelani, the most rare of the species, means "the royal going," because it was used by chiefs in early times; the color varies from light pink to hot pink to brown and black

Each subtle color differentiation has its own name, often taken from the names of flowers, as are some of the styles in which the lei are strung.

The more rare the color, the higher price the lei commands. The most expensive is the waipapipi (a type of kahelelani), named after the blossoms of the prickly pear cactus. The price per strand of this rare shell lei is about three times that of other varieties.

Maria Young, buyer for the Bishop Museum gift shop, said Ni'ihau shell lei range in price from $150 for a one-strand choker in the pikake style to $4,000 for a long multi-strand lei.

The most foolproof way to determine whether or not a shell lei is actually made of pupu o Ni'ihau is price. Knock-offs from Southeast Asia and the South Pacific usually sell for under $100, often costing only $20.

Sewing styles

As with floral lei, contemporary Ni'ihau shell lei makers are always experimenting with new styles. No two lei are exactly alike.

The names of the styles are usually derived from flower lei.

The lei kui pikake, for example, is strung in the manner of a single strand of pikake.

The lei kui wili uses all three types of shells wound around a cotton cloth foundation. This style is usually meant to be a choker as it is not flexible.

The lei kui helekonia is sewn flat with shell tips pointing toward the center resembling the sculptural flowers of the heliconia plant.

Selecting a lei

The choice of lei pupu o Ni'ihau is ultimately a matter of personal taste and style. But there are some quality issues to consider:

    Color: If the lei is monochromatic, the shells should be as perfectly matched as possible. In lei kipona, or mixed lei style, it should be an aesthetically pleasing combination.

    Luster: The shells should have the luster of a pearl; if possible, compare the lei side by side with a shell from elsewhere.

    Flaws: There should be no pukas, chips or cracks, except the pukas that were pierced in order to string the shells.

    Size: All the shells should be uniform in size or carefully graduated if that is the style. The smaller the shell, the more valuable the lei.

    Workmanship: Holes should be pierced in the same place on every shell; sewing thread should not be visible anywhere; hook and eye should be invisible when the cowries are clasped.

Shell lei care

Ni'ihau shells will lose their luster if they get dusty, dirty or are touched by chemicals. It's important to avoid using hairspray or fragrance while wearing them. The shells will absorb oils and dirt, leading to discoloration, if they are exposed to makeup.

If the shells should get dirty, the lei can be washed in mild soap or baby shampoo and water. It must be set out to dry completely.

To clean the lei after wearing it, rub gently with a soft absorbent cloth, such as cotton flannel. For safe storage, wrap the lei in cloth or tissue paper, not a plastic bag.

As with so much else Hawaiian, Ni'ihau shell lei are enjoying a renaissance and bringing top dollar to makers. Said Moriarty: "This is the golden age of Ni'ihau shell lei, due to the quality of the lei and innovation and style."

A brief history of Ni'ihau shell lei

  • Captain James Cook, who visited in 1778-1779, wrote in great detail about the four-strand armlet of shells he found on the island of Ni'ihau, now on display in the British Museum.
  • In 1873, world traveler Isabella Bird wrote to her sister in Scotland: "Mrs. Robinson is sending you a necklace only made on the island of Ni'ihau, of four rows of shells. They are very pretty. I have two, a short one and a long one."
  • Queen Emma wore a Ni'ihau shell lei when she was presented to the queen of England.
  • Queen Kapi'olani wore multiple strands of Ni'ihau shell lei with her formal Victorian dress to London for Queen Victoria's Jubilee.
  • In the 1920s, the shell lei were bought on Kaua'i from relatives of Ni'ihau residents and sold at O'ahu jewelry stores like Grossman-Moody and Wichman & Co.
  • Availability of the shell lei increased in the 1940s and 1950s because of the rise in popularity of aloha attire.

Source: "Ni'ihau Shell Leis," by Linda Moriarty