Ni‘ihau shell lei are exquisite pieces of jewelry that have been fashioned from tiny natural objects of great beauty. Some buyers select their lei solely on the basis of color, style, and length to suit their personal tastes and to complement their wardrobes, but other buyers shop for lei as they would for fine jewelry. As with any piece of fine jewelry, there are certain qualities that can be evaluated to determine the worth or excellence of a lei. In order to compare various lei and determine their quality, the following five points should be considered.
1. Color. The shells in a good lei have been carefully selected for color. If a lei is designed to be monochromatic, then the shells should be as nearly perfectly matched as possible. For example, if a lei is to be deemed pure white, shells that are speckled or off-white, and thus detract from the purity of the color, should not be present. In a Lei Kipona, or mixed-style lei, the selection and arrangement of shell colors should create a pleasing visual combination.
2. Luster. The natural luster of the shells is a very important feature to consider in selecting a lei. Shells with a brilliant luster like that of pearls are much more attractive. Shells collected on Ni‘ihau are generally far more radiant than those found elsewhere. The same types of shells found on Kaua‘i, for example, are inferior in color and have little or no luster. The difference is readily apparent when the two are placed side by side.
3. Flaws. The individual shells used in a lei should be flawless, completely free of any holes, chips, or cracks. The only holes should be the ones pierced by the lei maker. The aperture of each shell should be free of sand except in the Lei Kui Pololei style, in which the grains of sand prevent the shells from twisting on the thread and upsetting the uniformity of the style.
4. Size. Shells should be uniform in size, an important feature that helps determine the symmetry of the lei. If the lei is made from shells of graduated sizes, careful selection of sizes should be evident. Lei made of very tiny shells are extremely difficult to make and highly prized; the smaller the shell, the more difficult it is to clean and pierce it successfully.
5. Workmanship. The quality of workmanship is reflected in the piercing, sewing of the shells, and joining of the strands. The holes should be pierced in exactly the same place in each shell. This ensures evenness of style. In the Lei Kui Pololei, or single stringing style, the sewing thread should never be visible between the shells. When the sewing style requires the use of more than one length of thread, as in the Pikake styles, the knots should be tight and secure to prevent the shells from turning on the thread and upsetting the pattern.
The cowries used to join the shell lei should be of good quality without any flaws such as chips or cracks, and the color should complement the color or colors of the lei. The loose thread and cotton stuffing should be firmly implanted and neatly glued into the aperture of the cowry. If a hook-and-eye fastener is used, it should be glued to the underside of the cowries and should not be visible to a viewer when the shells are fastened together. The kauno‘o or puka shells that adjoin the cowries should match each other in size and color.
From Ni`ihau Shell Leis by Linda Paik Moriarty © 1986 University of Hawai‘i Press.