Ni‘ihau shell jewelry is unique in that it is the only jewelry specifically protected by the Legislature of the State of Hawai‘i.
In 2004 the House of Representatives unanimously approved H.B. No. 2569 which prohibits the sale of "seashell items" with a description or label using the term "Ni‘ihau" or "Niihau" unless 100% of the shells are from the island of Ni‘ihau and the item is made entirely in Hawai‘i. A copy of the wording of this legislation may be viewed at: http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/session2004/bills/HB2569_sd1_.htm
Shells used to make the Ni‘ihau shell lei are found abundantly only on the shores of Ni‘ihau, and this legislation was intended to protect the integrity of one of the few sources of income available to the Ni‘ihau people. The terms "momi," "kahelelani," and "laiki" may be used to describe shells found in limited quantity on other islands, but it is illegal to apply the term "Ni‘ihau" to any of these shells. For example, no jewelry can be described as being made from "Ni‘ihau shells from Kaua‘i."
Although the legislation makes allowance for limited use of non-Ni‘ihau shells as long as at least 80% of the shells are from Ni‘ihau, the exact percentage must be identified by count in such cases. For any amount less than 80%, the term Ni‘ihau may not be used.
Once you‘ve decided to buy a piece of Ni‘ihau shell jewelry, the long-established maxim caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) is still something you should keep in mind. With prices ranging from $100 to $30,000 or more for a single lei, you should do everything possible to make sure your purchase is not only of good quality but is also a genuine Ni‘ihau shell lei.
As for the origin of the shells according to the legislation cited above, many retailers give a certificate of authenticity stating that all of the shells are actually from the island of Ni‘ihau. However, you still need to feel comfortable with your seller, especially if you are purchasing an expensive lei.
In addition, anyone planning to purchase a lei but who has not had extensive experience in recognizing what constitutes quality in a Ni‘ihau shell lei should take a few minutes to read the SELECTING A SHELL LEI section of this website. Just remember that the price of a lei, as with any other product or piece of art, is directly related to quality.
Sellers of Ni‘ihau shell lei provide a variety of documentation. Although authenticity is an important issue, knowing the appraised value a lei could be important if you are planning to insure your jewelry. This can be difficult to determine, however, since value depends on so many different factors, and at this time there is no specific procedure for appraisal that has been generally accepted by all Ni‘ihau shell dealers or the makers themselves. Because of this, some sellers merely indicate the price paid for the item.
If you have already established a long-term personal relationship with a lei maker or a retailer that you trust, you are in an enviable position. However, if this is not the case, you need to be careful as you seek a reliable source. You definitely want to know who you can go to if any damage should occur to your lei and it needs to be repaired.
Ni‘ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation is working to establish an outlet with a reputation that can be trusted by both customers and the lei makers themselves. All shell jewelry accepted by NCHF for sale to the public must be genuine Ni‘ihau shell jewelry of high quality made by Ni‘ihau artisans or their families, and an appraisal will be made by a team of experts who have had years of experience in the trade in order to arrive at a realistic value. Documentation will also be provided that can be used for insurance coverage, and repairing a damaged lei can be arranged at actual cost for the repair and postage.
Since Ni‘ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, one of its goals is to provide a means of supporting the Ni‘ihau shell lei makers by having a place where they can essentially receive all—or at least most—of the price actually paid by a buyer instead of the wholesale percentage ordinarily received from retailers. This will be accomplished by involving the artisans and their families directly in the marketing process, and this involvement will also help to give lei makers and their families the experience needed to branch out on their own.