The Ni’ihau Shell Lei is the rarest and only insurable shell in the world
Ni’ihau is probably most famous for the Ni’ihau shell necklaces or lei, which are handcrafted on-island. There are four species of Ni’ihau shells, or Pupu ‘O Ni’ihau. These shells are very unique, and they are found only on the island of Ni’ihau.
The Ni’ihau shell lei are extremely valuable because of the painstaking detail and amount of work that goes into finding the shells, sorting, and organizing them, then stringing them delicately in intricate, decorative patterns. Holes are hand-drilled in each tiny shell in order to cause minimal damage.
The art of lei-making has been passed down for many generations; this is one of the few ancient Hawaiian arts still practiced today. A single lei requires hundreds of tiny shells. This time-consuming work and rarity of the shells make Ni’ihau shell lei very expensive and has become an important source of revenue for residents of the island. The lei are considered fine jewelry and one of the only shells in the world that is insurable.
Shells are generally identified by first indicating the kind of shell, such as kahelelani, momi, lāiki, etc., and then adding any qualifying terms, usually relating to color. Common colors are ke‘oke‘o (white), ‘ākala (pink), lenalena (yellow), and ‘ōma‘oma‘o (green). Shades of colors are often identified as ‘āhiehie (light) or ikaika (dark).
While on Kauai, keep your eye out for these rare and beautiful hand-made items. They range in price from $100 up to $30,000 for museum quality and historical pieces.