Ni’ihau shell jewelry is one of the most Hawai’ian art forms represented in the Maui Hands galleries. A private island with a population of just under 200, mostly of pure Native Hawai’ian descent, Ni’ihau has no rivers running into the ocean, and the surrounding coral beds remain unspoiled and untouched by outside influences, allowing the tiny shells – pupu ‘o Ni’ihau – to develop their prized shine and delicacy.
The tradition of sewing these shells into delicate jewelry of unsurpassed beauty has been passed down for generations on the island, continuing uninterrupted for hundreds of years. Far from the bustle of modern life, it may take makers a year or more to gather just the right combination for their complex designs. The shells are sorted by type, size, and quality, only then to be pierced with a sharp awl – unfortunately breaking many in the process.
Artisans create their own beautiful designs, yet follow tradition weaving patterns to craft culturally rich, wearable pieces of art. We hope you will come to appreciate Ni’ihau shell jewelry as much as we do!
Learn more about Ni’ihau shells and traditional lei weaves by clicking though the boxes below.
Pupu o Niʻihau
Kahelelani, meaning “the royal going”, are named so because in the early times they were primarily worn by chiefs, Kahelelani was named the first chief of Ni’ihau. These are the smallest of the Niʻihau shells and the most difficult to collect, pierce and string. Therefore, they are the most precious shell in Niʻihau. Also, Kahelelani shells are the only shells in the world that gemologists will grade for insurance purposes.
Momi, which means pearl, are oval shaped and come in an array of colors
Lāiki resemble grains of rice and are usually ivory in color.
‘Ālīlea shells are similar to Momi but larger and often woven into men’s leis.
Pōleho shells are similar in size to the ʻālīlea shell and range in color from golden to dark brown. They are also often woven into men’s leis.
Pōleholeho are cowrie shells and there is a variety of them found on Niʻihau. They are used to hold the clasp on larger leis.
Basic Shades and Patterns
ʻĀhiehie – light
Ikaika – dark
Kahakaha – striped
ʻŌnikiniki – spotted
Keʻokeʻo – white
ʻĀkala – pink
Lenalena – yellow
ʻŌmaʻomaʻo – green
Mākuʻe – burgundy
ʻUla ʻula – burgundy red
ʻEle ʻele – black
Ākala wai pāpipi – hot pink
Ākala pua – flower pink
Mauna Loa – single strand
Poepoe – round 2 or 4 tie
Kipona – utilizing a variety of pupu
Wili – twist
Crown Flower – like the flower
Heleconia – like the flower
Pikake – like the flower