The Value of Tradition in Ni’ihau Shell Leis



There are eight major islands in the Hawaiian Island chain: Hawaii Island, Maui, Kauai, Lanai, Oahu, Molokai, Kahoolawe, and Niihau. Each island offers a unique feature or quality, which helps it to stand out and distinguish itself amongst the rest. But one of the most interesting is the island of Niihau – a private island that you need permission to access.


Here, some residents still speak the native Hawaiian language and the traditional way of life is still observed in some practices. And while one can’t place a value on the traditions preserved by the people of Niihau you can on the beautiful products created by the people and products there.


Much like shells are the diamonds to any surfer girl, Niihau shells – found only on the island of Niihau — are valued like a one-of-a-kind diamond encrusted necklace. With an official notary, Niihau shells can be evaluated based on its strain and style of stringing. Some Niihau shell leis have been known to be valued for up to $20,000. The value of a Niiahu shell lei is calculated based on its uniqueness, color, type of shell, and how clean the shell is.


What makes a Niihau shell lei so valuable? While the physical state of each shell is the biggest contribution to the price, the tedious work put into making the lei is a priceless process. Each lei takes a great deal of patience because of the difficulty in accumulating enough shells to do just one strand, and the fact that each lei typically features several strands. Cleaning and piercing the shells also requires meticulous attention to detail as each shell is tiny and delicate.


As a Hawaiian tradition passed through generations, lei-making will always be defined as a profession for practitioners. Passing the knowledge down through each generation is what transforms the practice into tradition. That is what truly makes authentic Niihau shell leis so valuable – celebrating the tradition of old Hawaii.