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Shells Used in Making Ni'ihau Leis
"Lei Pupu 'o Ni'ihau"

"A Niihau Shell lei is an intricate, individual, hand-sewn perpetual lei made from the tiny shells which populate the beaches of Niihau Island, and each piece of jewelry is unique owing to the selection of shells and the artisan who creates with them..."
The Three Main Shells Used
(Click on Shells for More views)

Leptothyra verruca
(Mighels, 1845)

Euplica varians

(Sowerby, GB I, 1832)

Mitrella margarita

(Reeve, LA, 1859)

Clasp Shells
A number of cowries are used by Ni'ihau lei maker. Most often they are used for the clasps on the necklaces. Leho is the general name for cowry shell. On Ni'ihau poleho or poleholeho is a small sized cowry. Poleho is also used to indicate a dark or burnt color.
Reference: Ka Lei, The Leis of Hawaii by Marie A. McDonald)

Cypraea (Staphylaea) granulata granulata
(Pease, W.H., 1862)

Common Name:
    Granulated Cowry
Hawaiian Name:


Cypraea caurica
(Linnaeus, C., 1758)

Common Name:
    Caurica/Thick Edged          Cowry

Hawaiian Name:


Cypraea isabella
(Linnaeus, 1758)

Common Name:
    Isabelle's cowrie
Hawaiian Name:
    momi ke`oke`o


Heliacus sterkii
(Pilsbry & Vanatta, 1908)
Heliacus implexus
(Mighels, 1845 )

Common Name:
    Sundial shell
Hawaiian Name:

A. Bourquin Col. # 2-146

Heliacus variegatus

Common Name:
    Depressed/Variegated                 Sundial
Hawaiian Name:


Miscellaneous Shells used in Ni'ihau Leis

Strombus maculatus

Hawaiian Name: Alilea: "The Alilea is a larger Ni'ihau shell which is not as commonly used in Leis. You find them in both white and yellow variations. These shells can be strung in kui pololei or pikake style for impressive leis. Due to the size of the shells, these leis are usually worn by men..."

Chlamys irregularis
(Sowerby, 1842)

Hawaiian Name: "Olepelepe: A delicate shell, 'Olepelepe comes is a variety of pastel colors. These shells are typically used in hatbands or other flat laying leis. The shells are paper-thin, a challenge to pierce and sew..."
( http://www.treasuresofniihau.com/learnFrameset.html )

A. Bourquin Col. # 106


Nodipecten langfordi (Lyropecten langfordi )
(Bartsh & Rehder,1938)

Common Name: Sunrise Shells
Hawaiian Names for bivalves: `olepe, uhi

"Sunrise shells are in the scallop family (Langford's Scallop) and according to "legend" they were very sacred to the ancient Hawaiians. The story goes: "Servants of the kings would walk the beaches and look for these shells, but only the Royal Family would wear these magnificent shells. They received the name "sunrise" because early in the morning (at sunrise) the Sunrise shell would be the easiest shells to spot on the beach. The sun would reflect its rays of the vibrant colors of these beautiful scallop shells". It is said that only "blessed" people find these rare Hawaiian shells" http://www.pukahawaii.com/sunrises.htm

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Nodipecten langfordi
Lyropecten langfordi

(Bartsh & Rehder,1938 )
31 mm.
A. Bourquin Col. # 86

Turbo sandwicensis
(Menke, 1846)

Common Name:
      Hawaiian Top Shell
Hawaiian Name:
      Halili lenalena

A. Bourquin Col. # 2-254

A. Bourquin Col.
" Kamoa ('alilea)
The very young, small turbos are used in leis or the larger ones are cut down with fingernail cutters until only the yellow tip of the spire is left. These spire tips are strung through a hole that is punched out through the stop. Leis of only these spire tips are rare and unbelievable. Usually pupu kamoa is used to add interest to leis of other shells. The spire tips resemble the yellow spores of the primitive plant called moa, thus the name, kamoa. ) http://www.hoalahawaii.com/nalei/naleikamoa.htm
Puka Shells: This is actually the base of a beach worn or hand sanded cone shell. These may be found next to the clasps of the necklace

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Melampus castaneus
     (Mühlfeld, M. von, 1818)
Melampus parvulus
     (Pfeiffer, 1846)
Allochra bronni
     (Philippi, 1846)
Hawaiian Name:
      Pupu 'Ele'ele Lei

A. Bourquin Col.

I have not been personally able to verify that this shell is used in genuine Ni'ihau jewelry. AB

Law affirms identity of Niihau shell leis
New standards on craftsmanship and materials must be met
  • Act 91 prohibits jewelry from being labeled "Niihau" if it is not made mostly with shells from the island of Niihau.

  • The law also says Niihau shell leis must be strung within the state, and stipulates that Niihau shell leis be made with at least 80 percent of Niihau shells and labeled with the Niihau shell percentage content.

  • The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs recently submitted testimony supporting the bill, stating that "these shells and lei are official emblems of their native land. Generations of Niihau families have collected and strung Pupu o Niihau, momi and Kahelelani on the beaches of Niihau and Kauai." (http://starbulletin.com/2004/03/24/news/story5.html)

  • House Bill 2569, a pending state bill that would ensure the accurate identification of authentic Niihau shell products to protect the public from false representations.
    ( http://pacific.bizjournals.com/pacific/stories/2004/05/03/daily36.html )


Facts on Ni'ihau shell leis
  • Regarded as one of the finest Polynesian art forms, these rare and expensive leis are heirlooms to be treasured forever and the only shell lei in the world that you can insure.

  • A certificate of authenticity will be provided with each Ni'ihau shell lei purchased, along with information on how to have your lei appraised and insured.

  • Pricing for shell lei are determined by the colors and types of shells; style and quality of the stringing; and the length of the lei. ( Niihau shell leis )

  • Although some common shells can be found on other islands, the shells from Ni'ihau have a characteristic luster not found in the other shells. Most of the tiny shells used are all three species: kahelelani, momi, and laiki. The Niihauans have names for all the variations of shell color and pattern. Whole families spend the winter month's gathering the small shells, and the art of making leis has been passed from mother to daughter. Each lei can take up to six months to complete. Today, the leis are an important supplement to a family's income. (Get Acquainted with Ni'ihau Leis - Lost link )

  • Shells collected from the beaches on Ni'hau are sorted by size and color. They are prepared and pierced according to the syle of lei to be made. Nearly twice as many shells are needed to create a given piece since up to half of the shells can break during the piercing process! (http://www.hawaiian.net/~niihauisland/aloha.html - Lost link)

  • The shells are then sorted according to size and color, and only the best are kept. Some 80% of the shells are thrown out because they are chipped, cracked, discolored or flawed in any way that renders them imperfect. The best shells are the teeny, tiny ones. The best colors (the shells can be white, yellow, blue, red, or gold) are white or the rare gold.

    The shells can be crafted into anything, but leis and necklaces are the most popular items. A necklace may take anywhere from hours to years to complete. Each shell is strung with very small and very intricate knots. The patterns sometimes mimic flower leis, and the length can range from a single-strand choker to a multi-strand, 36-inch (or longer) necklace. No two leis are alike. The leis are not cheap; they range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the length, the shells used, and the intricate work involved. ( http://www.frommers.com/destinations/kauai/0011010031.html - Lost link)


Web sites used for developing these pages



Ni'Ihau Shell Leis
Written by Linda Paik Moriarty
Published by University of Hawaii Press (September 1986)
ISBN 082480998X




Miscellaneous Ni'Ihau Shell Leis Links



Miscellaneous Ni'Ihau Links

  • Ni'ihau: Star Bulletin: Island at a Crossroad - Special Report

  • Native Renaissance in Hawaii: On the tiny, private island of Ni'ihau, the tradition of sewing the tiny shells, pu'pu o Ni'ihau, into leis of breathtaking beauty has gone on for hundreds ...



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