Ni‘ihau Shells

Legally, this term refers only to shells actually gathered on the shores of the Forbidden Island.  However, the term generally refers to three different shells that are commonly used to make Ni‘ihau shell lei:  kahelelani, momi, and lāiki, as well as a fourth one, kāmoa, which is frequently used to add contrasting color.

Because these shells have a variety of colors and markings, Ni‘ihau artisans use descriptive terms to differentiate them.

Shells are generally identified by first indicating the kind of shell, such as kahelelani, momi, lāiki, etc., and then adding any qualifying terms, usually relating to color.  Common colors are ke‘oke‘o (white), ‘ākala (pink), lenalena (yellow), and ‘ōma‘oma‘o (green).  Shades of colors are often identified as ‘āhiehie (light) or ikaika (dark).  A few other terms include kahakaha (striped), ‘ōnikiniki (spotted), ‘āpu‘upu‘u (bumpy), and even waha ‘ula‘ula (red mouth).

Just a word of caution when identifying Ni‘ihau shells.  Although most of the names given in this website are fairly standard among shell lei makers, the shells pictured here and the descriptive names were all supplied by Kanani, an experienced shell lei artisan.  There may be variations, however, in the names that other lei makers commonly use.

English translations of these names, used when describing a lei to someone who is not a speaker of Hawaiian, may also vary and include a variety of colorful descriptions such as “butterscotch” and “hot pink.”

The value of a lei is also impacted by the availability of certain shells.  While the off-white momi shell is extremely common and easy to find, hot-pink and black kahelelani are very rare, so a lei which includes these shells will be priced significantly higher than a similar lei made with shells of colors which are readily available.

To give you a better perspective of how tiny some of these shells are, the different kinds of shells pictured in this section are also shown next to a quarter from the series of quarters minted with designs honoring each of the states.  This Hawaiian quarter, minted in 2008, shows Kamehameha I, the warrior king who united all of the Hawaiian islands, and also includes the State motto.  The words of the motto are generally attributed to King Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli, who reportedly spoke them on July 31, 1843, when sovereignty was restored to the Hawaiian kingdom after a brief British occupation.

Ni‘ihau Shells


kahelelani

 

Turban Family

Turbinidae

 

kahelelani ‘ākala pua
kahelelani ‘ākala pua
kahelelani kahelelani ‘ākala wai pāpipi
kahelelani ‘ākala wai pāpipi
kahelelani ‘ōma‘oma ‘o
kahelelani ‘ōma‘oma ‘o
kahelelani māku‘e
kahelelani māku‘e
kahelelani ‘ula‘ula
kahelelani ‘ula‘ula
kahelelani ke‘oke‘o
kahelelani ke‘oke‘o
kahelelani ‘ele‘ele
kahelelani ‘ele‘ele
kahelelani ‘ākala ‘āhiehie
kahelelani ‘ākala ‘āhiehie
kāmoa ‘ili‘ālani
kāmoa ‘ili‘ālani
kāmoa lenalena
kāmoa lenalena
kāmoa ke‘oke‘o
kāmoa ke‘oke‘o
kāmoa ‘ōma‘oma ‘o ‘āhiehie
kāmoa ‘ōma‘oma ‘o ‘āhiehie
kehelelani and kāmoa shells around a quarter
kehelelani and kāmoa shells around a quarter
     

momi

 

Dove Shell Family

Collumbellidae

momi ‘ōnikiniki ‘ele‘ele
momi ‘ōnikiniki ‘ele‘ele
momi uliuli ‘āhiehie
momi uliuli ‘āhiehie
momi kahakaha ikaika
momi kahakaha ikaika
momi kahakaha ‘āhiehie
momi kahakaha ‘āhiehie
momi lenalena
momi lenalena
momi lenalena maika‘i
momi lenalena maika‘i
momi lenalena ‘āhiehie
momi lenalena ‘āhiehie
momi lenalena kahakaha
momi lenalena kahakaha
momi ke‘oke‘o kua‘ula
momi ke‘oke‘o kua‘ula
momi uliuli ikaika
momi uliuli ikaika
momi lenalena waha ‘ele‘ele
momi lenalena waha ‘ele‘ele
momi ke‘oke‘o waha ‘ula‘ula
momi ke‘oke‘o waha ‘ula‘ula
momi ke‘oke‘o maikia‘i
momi ke‘oke‘o maikia‘i
momi ‘ōnikiniki ‘āhiehie
momi ‘ōnikiniki ‘āhiehie
momi shells around a quarter
momi shells around a quarter
 

lāiki

 

Rice Shells

Collumbellidae

lāiki uliuli
lāiki uliuli
lāiki ‘onikiniki ikaika ‘āpu‘upu‘u
lāiki ‘onikiniki ikaika ‘āpu‘upu‘u
lāiki kahakaha ikaika ‘āpu‘upu‘u
lāiki kahakaha ikaika ‘āpu‘upu‘u
lāiki lenalena
lāiki lenalena
lāiki ke‘oke‘o maika‘i
lāiki ke‘oke‘o maika‘i
lāiki kahakaha ‘āhiehie ‘āpu‘upu‘u
lāiki kahakaha ‘āhiehie ‘āpu‘upu‘u
lāiki ‘ōnikiniki ‘āhiehie
lāiki ‘ōnikiniki ‘āhiehie
lāiki shells around a quarter
lāiki shells around a quarter

Other Shells

 

kauno‘o ‘ele‘ele
kauno‘o ‘ele‘ele
kauno‘o māku‘e
kauno‘o māku‘e
kauno‘o shells by a quarter
kauno‘o shells by a quarter
 
‘ālīlea
‘ālīlea
pōleho
pōleho
‘ālīlea and pōleho shells
‘ālīlea and pōleho shells
by a quarter
pōleholeho ‘āpu‘upu‘u
pōleholeho ‘āpu‘upu‘u
pōleholeho ‘ōpule
pōleholeho ‘ōpule
pōleholeho ke‘oke‘o
pōleholeho ke‘oke‘o
pōleholeho lenalena
pōleholeho lenalena
pōleholeho shells pōleholeho shells
pōleholeho shells
around a quarter

 

 

Ni`ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation
2009 Copyright, All Rights Reserved
P.O. Box 348 Kalaheo, HI 96741-0348
Site Map
Website by: Emagine