The Hawaiian island of Ni’ihau is often called “The Forbidden Island.” It sounds like something straight out of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but instead of cursed gold dubloons, Ni’ihau is home to another kind of treasure: shells.
Unlike the other Hawaiian islands where flower lei are the norm, Ni’ihau focuses on shell lei because of its dry, arid climate. The practice has evolved over the centuries into a fine art and is now so valuable — both culturally and economically — to the people of Ni’ihau that the craft is protected by law.
Because Ni’ihau has been privately owned since 1864 and purposefully undeveloped in an effort to preserve the Hawaiian language and culture, the island’s beaches are practically untouched. They are also littered with shells.
Fewer than 200 people live on Ni’ihau, and they lead simple, traditional lives — they speak Hawaiian and live without electricity. There are few methods of income on the island, but artisans sift through the sand, looking for flawless specimens for the elaborate lei. The shells used for the lei vary in rarity depending on color and size. The hot pink and black kahelelani, for instance, are highly prized.
The lei, worn by men and women alike, come in all colors, sizes, and stringing patterns. Depending on the size and complexity of the lei, the process can be lengthy. Charlie Baker, a member of the Board of Directors of the Ni’ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation, told the Huffington Post he has a multicolored 25 strand 36 inch kahelelani shell lei that took over a year to complete.
Baker says that Ni’ihau shell lei are an important part of Hawaiian culture. “Ni’ihau shell art is and always has been a major part of the art from Hawaii. To me, it is the most Hawaiian art object you can buy in Hawaii.”
Baker hopes to get more exposure for the craft to benefit the artisans. “My goal is to get Michelle Obama to wear a dramatic Ni’ihau shell lei.”