Regarded as one of the finest Polynesian art forms, Ni'ihau shell jewelry are treasured worldwide.
Although some common shells can be found on other islands, the shells from Ni'ihau have a characteristic luster not found in the other shells. Most of the tiny shells used are all three species: kahelelani, momi, and laiki. The Niihauans have names for all the variations of shell color and pattern. Whole families spend the winter month's gathering the small shells, and the art of making leis has been passed from mother to daughter. Each lei can take up to six months to complete. Today, the leis are an important supplement to a family's income.
Shells collected from the beaches on Ni'hau are sorted by size and color, and only the best are kept. Some 80% of the shells are thrown out because they are chipped, cracked, discolored or flawed in any way that renders them imperfect.
The best shells are the teeny, tiny ones. The best colors (the shells can be white, yellow, blue, red, or gold) are white or the rare gold.
The shells can be crafted into anything, but leis and necklaces are the most popular items. A necklace may take anywhere from hours to years to complete. Each shell is strung with very small and very intricate knots. The patterns sometimes mimic flower leis, and the length can range from a single-strand choker to a multi-strand, 36-inch (or longer) necklace. No two pieces are alike.