Posted by: kauaikolea2 | June 7, 2011

Ni’ihau — The Forbidden Island Has Unique Jewelry Treasure For Kaua’i


If you want a real Hawaiian memory, one that you can carry with you and enjoy every day, consider purchasing a Ni’ihau shell lei, bracelet, or earrings when you are on island. Ni’ihau, often mysteriously referred to as that “Forbidden Island” has some of the best native/traditional shell lei makers and they bring their wares to Kauai for sale. A Ni’ihau shell lei (and other jewelry) is the last native Hawaiian handicraft – so many other “Hawaiian” souvenirs are made in China. Ni’ihau shell leis are not the puka shell necklaces that cruise ships and retail stores hand out willy-nilly!  Even if you are not purchasing a lei, you need to look at one close up to appreciate the work, and the value, of a real Ni’ihau shell lei. In fact, good jewelry stores will give you a certificate stating that your lei was made on the island of Ni’ihau, give you the name and maybe photograph of the person who made it, and let you know that Ni’ihau shell leis are insurable as both art and jewelry. The process of making a Ni’ihau shell lei is long and delicate.  First, the shells must be gathered from the beach. If you would like to experience how the shells are gathered, bring a handful of rice to the beach and throw it.  Now, go pick up each grain!  The shells used are the size of grains of rice and are found during the winter for a very short period of time. The shells belong to tiny animals that die on the reefs because of the rough winter seas. This process is not beach combing!  The gatherer must be on hands and knees, face to the sand, with tweezers in hand to pick up the delicate shells. Only fully intact shells are picked up and after 8 hours, maybe a tablespoon of shells are collected. Once the shells have been gathered, they must be sorted by size and color.  The shells range in color from pale, almost white/cream to a dark burgundy. Red and hot pink shells are very rare and very prized! Once shells are collected, sized, and sorted by color, the work on a lei can start. Not all shell leis are the same design but neither are the tiny shells placed haphazardly into the design.  Pattern, color, and shade must be taken into consideration. As the lei maker works the design, choosing shells, tiny grains of sand need to be removed from the little shells. Each shell must be pierced just so with a sharp needle.  If not pierced properly, the shell can break or may not lie correctly in the design.  A good shell lei has no shells poking out!  Shells are lost during this step, no matter how skilled or how careful the jewelry maker is.  The shells are strung with a particular stringing stitch – herringbone stitch or poe poe stitch or pikake stitch or some other stitch that has been handed down over the generations. Once finished, a Ni’ihau shell lei is incredibly intricate and beautiful. They are truly art and jewelry and are a good investment. Be careful with your Ni’ihau shell jewelry, however, as it is very delicate. Be careful not to get perfume, sunscreen, or cosmetics on the shells (they can dissolve) and do not wear swimming or during sporting activities (same advice as for pearls). Keep your Ni’ihau shell jewelry in jewelry cloth or acid-free tissue paper for protection. When you wear your Ni’ihau shell jewelry on the mainland for a summer event, you will have an instant conversation starter!

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