The Tiny Treasures of Niihau


EVERY winter, storm waves crash onto the coast of Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island,” Niihau. Vast quantities of empty, miniature sea-snail shells are hurled shoreward by the waves and wash up on certain beaches. Niihau​—covering just 70 square miles [180 km2]—​is the smallest of the seven inhabited Hawaiian Islands. How fitting, then, that this volcanic island should be home to some of the world’s tiniest treasures​—the exquisite shells of Niihau.

Unlike Niihau’s closest neighbor island, Kauai, 17 miles [27 km] to the northeast, Niihau is mostly low-lying and arid. But why is it called the Forbidden Island? Niihau is privately owned and closed to uninvited visitors. The self-sufficient residents of the island have no central power plant, no running water, no stores, and no post office. In an effort to preserve their ancient culture, the 230 or so native Hawaiians who live there converse in the Hawaiian language. When they are not tending sheep and cattle, most are involved in tapping their “gold mine” of diminutive shells. *

During the warm Hawaiian winter months, families walk or bike down dusty roads to the pristine beaches and rocky coves, where they spend long days collecting shells. Once the shells are gathered, they are spread out in the shade to dry. Later, they will be sorted, graded, and strung into delicate leis, or necklaces. On more verdant islands, most leis are made of flowers. On Niihau, shells serve as the “flowers.”

“Jewels” From the Sea

Shells have long been used as jewelry in Hawaii. In the late 18th century, seafaring explorers​—including Captain James Cook—​encountered shell ornaments here and wrote about them in their journals. They also brought back samples, some of which may have come from Niihau. As time went by, Niihau’s beguiling leis began to appear around the necks of Hawaii’s notable women, including dancers and even royalty. In the 20th century, thanks to curio shops, tourism, and soldiers who passed through Hawaii during World War II, these special “jewels” found a niche in a wider market. Today the lovely necklaces that once graced Hawaii’s nobility are worn by admirers in lands near and far.

The shells most often used in making Niihau  leis are called momi, laiki, and kahelelani in Hawaiian. Variations in color and pattern present an enjoyable challenge for the leimaker​—usually female—​who meticulously threads the shells into a work of art. Some 20 different varieties of pearly, oval-shaped momi are used, ranging from brilliant white to dark brown. When strung in the highly prized Lei Pikake style, the momi’s oillike sheen and small size​—only 3/8 of an inch [10 mm] in length—​produce leis that look much like strands of fragrant white jasmine, or pikake.

Multiple strands of glossy ricelike laiki often adorn brides in Hawaii. These lustrous shells vary in hue from pure white and ivory to yellowish beige, with some having brown striations. Kahelelani shells, perhaps named after an ancient Hawaiian chief, measure a mere 3/16 of an inch [5 mm] in length. These delicate, turban-shaped shells are the most difficult to string, and leis made from them are the most costly. They range in color from deep burgundy to the rarest color, hot pink, which fetches a price three times that of other colors.

Making a Niihau-Shell Lei

Once the leimaker decides on a pattern, she removes all the sand from the shells and pierces them with a fine-pointed awl. Although she works carefully and skillfully, 1 out of 3 shells breaks. Thus, many extra shells must be on hand just to complete one lei, a process that may take years! To string the lei, she uses a nylon thread stiffened with fast-drying cement or beeswax. Traditionally, a small button-shaped shell, such as a sundial or a puka, is attached to each end of the strand, and one or two cowrie shells are added where the ends of the lei are joined together.

There are nearly as many ways of stringing leis as there are variations in the shells themselves. Styles include classic single-strung white momi leis ranging from 60 to 75 inches [150 to 190 cm] in length, rope leis consisting of hundreds of minute kahelelani shells, and garlands woven in symmetrical geometric patterns​—some with mixtures of shells and seeds. Leimaking is painstaking, time-consuming, and eye-straining work. But the creative and patient Niihau artisans regularly create intricate leis of uncommon beauty. Each lei is unique, and it is easy to understand why they can rival precious gems and heirloom jewelry in value, some costing thousands of dollars.

Niihau may be relatively bare, sparsely populated, and tucked away in a remote corner of Hawaii. But thanks to its imaginative, artistic leimakers, people far beyond Niihau’s sunny shores can share the beauty of treasures of the “Forbidden Island.”


^ par. 4 The same types of shells are also found on other Hawaiian Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific, but quantity and quality vary from place to place.

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Dried shells are sorted, graded, and strung into delicate leis

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© Robert Holmes

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Swirls of “momi” shells

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