Off the western shores of Kauai there is a small sliver of land barely visible in the distance. This is Niihau, commonly known as the Forbidden Island. Niihau has been privately owned for over 150 years, and access to the island by outsiders is limited.
The Island is like a living time capsule where Hawaiian traditions are the norm. This isolation has led to the preservation of the Niihau dialect, as well as many rich cultural traditions, such as crafting traditional shell lei.
Niihau shell lei are made using shells harvested on that island, and made by skilled artisans. Only the best shells are chosen to make the lei. There are four types of shells frequently used: kahelelani, momi, laiki and kamoa for contrast. A full day of scouring the beach may only result in half a dozen usable shells. Collecting shells and stringing each hand-crafted, artisanal lei is a time consuming process. That is part of why each Niihau shell lei is so special. Residents have been making shell lei for centuries, and the method for making them has been passed down with each generation.
Since 2004, Hawaii legislation dictates that any shell lei advertised as Niihau lei must be made exclusively from shells found on that island, as opposed to a mixture of shells from Niihau and neighbor Islands. This is to help preserve an income source for people on the Forbidden Island.
And what a wonderful source of income these gorgeous lei can be. Niihau lei can retail from $100 to $30,000! It may seem like a lot, but the craftsmanship and beauty of each individual lei cannot be denied.
There are several shops throughout Oahu that sell Niihau shell lei including Na Mea Hawaii, Bishop Museum Shop Pacifica and the Honolulu Academy of Arts Gift Shop. Be sure to ask sellers for a certificate of authenticity. For more information on Niihau and the shell lei, visit www.niihauheritage.org.
Photo by Shutterstock/HIPHO