Sometime in the long-forgotten past of the island of Ni‘ihau, the first shell lei was likely made of colorful shells gathered on a nearby beach and strung on a single strand of twine made of an organic material available on the island.
Today, however, there is a wide variety of methods that the artisans use to sew a shell lei, and masters of this fine art continue experimenting to develop new styles in order to produce unique creations for family, friends, collectors, and also for those who are just learning about this traditional Hawaiian folk art for the first time.
If you are a novice who wishes to become knowledgeable about the art of making Ni‘ihau shell lei, there are many terms you will eventually need to learn which refer to the various hues of the shells themselves or of the style of sewing a lei. One common method used today is called kipona, and this term refers to a lei made with a combination of different kinds of shells, usually momi and kahelelani.
Ni‘ihau shell lei pictured in this showcase are mostly from private collections, so they are not for sale. They are included here to provide a glimpse of the many styles of lei designed by Ni‘ihau artisans using tiny, exquisite shells gathered on remote beaches of the Forbidden Island.