Nestled in the flaming sunsets visible across the Kaulakahi channel from the northernmost inhabited Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i, the mysterious island of Ni‘ihau has been privately owned since 1864. Often called the Forbidden Island, Ni‘ihau not only has its own dialect of the Hawaiian language but also has its own unique history and culture.
Exquisite shell lei made from tiny shells gathered on the deserted shores of Ni‘ihau were first brought to the attention of the courts of Europe when Queen Kapi‘olani traveled to London to attend Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887. Today collectors as well as casual consumers are still able to experience and even own a sampling of this unique aspect of Ni‘ihau culture. (Photo courtesy of The Hawaiian Historical Society. )
Whereas a simple single-strand lei may be available for as little as $100, a high-quality multi-strand lei made with shells of rare colors may go for as much as $30,000 or even higher. The value of a lei is determined not only by the rarity and quality of the shells used but also by the skill of the artisan from Ni‘ihau. This skill, enhanced by the individual lei maker's imagination, has been handed down from generation to generation.
But just as is happening to native plants and animals on all of the Hawaiian islands and throughout the world, this fine folk art is in danger of extinction. As more and more of the Ni‘ihau people move away from the island, fewer and fewer of the young people are learning the art of making the Ni‘ihau shell lei, and fewer and fewer families remain on the island where they can harvest shells of high quality which are found only on the isolated beaches of the Forbidden Island.
This website is sponsored by the Ni‘ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization established to assist in preserving the Ni‘ihau culture and language as well as assisting the Ni‘ihau community to develop economic self-sufficiency through the marketing of this endangered fine folk art.
We hope you will enjoy our website and use it as a means of learning more about the unique culture and language of the Forbidden Island of Ni‘ihau as well as discovering how you, too, can become personally involved in fulfilling the goals of the Ni‘ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation.
View the Ni‘ihau Shell Lei Jewelry Photo Gallery of exquisite samples of fine Ni‘ihau Shell jewelry in a variety of styles, colors and lengths.
Ni‘ihau students at Ke Kula Ni‘ihau O Kekaha learned photography and video production in a special class taught by Jim Lucas. This video shows some behind-the-scenes shots of their filming of Awapuhi Kahale, a Ni‘ihau artisan in the school's recording studio.
Click here to watch the entire series of videos describing the intricacies of sorting, preparing, and stringing a Ni‘ihau shell lei.