Niihau Shell Lei, a Little Bit of This and That




From the small little island of Niihau, 18 miles long and 3-6 miles wide, comes the small little shell, columbella varians sowerly, or more commonly known as the Niihau shell. How small you ask? Well in the above photo of a lei made from a variety of this shell you can count 7,000 of them!

And like the shell, Niihau is small but unique. Niihau was purchased in 1864 from King Kamehameha the IV for $10,000. Imagine owning your own little island at that price today. The Sinclair family bought it to start-up ranching. The native Hawaiians lived and worked there but no other people were allowed to visit or take up residence. It became known as the Forbidden Island. Through the years the island came into the hands of two brothers, the Robinson’s, who were descendents of the Sinclair’s.

The island being isolated for many years meant that the Hawaiian language and culture were in many ways preserved. The Hawaiians were employed by the Robinson’s and provided with places to live.

I had heard people say how there were no modern conveniences and that the only entertainment they had was a radio. I’m not sure how they lived as I never met anyone who had managed to get on to the island. Only friends or relatives of the residents there could visit. But in my research I was fascinated to find that their was a school for the kids that was supported totally with solar power that allowed the children to use computers. Now that seems modern to me.

Alas in 1999 the family had to shut down the ranching. That left residence with very little employment. Now there is said to be maybe 70 Hawaiians living there and during the summer when they go to visit relatives on nearby Kauai, there are as little as 30 left on the island.

The Niihau shell lei which can sell for more than $10,000 is considered now to be the prime source of earning an income on the island. Unfortunately with all of the people moving away there are very few left to collect these microscopic shells. This means that there are very few people who are carrying on the art of making the lei and there are few skilled artisans to make and pass on the craft.

Once a piece of art that you could buy for five dollars on the street may become a thing of the past. But for now the leis are still available and still quite popular. Here are some photos from the current exhibit at Bishop Museum. I’ve also included some sites where I have gotten some of my information from. You can check them out at the end of the photos.






Niihau shell drapes.  From the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. It would have been used to decorate a doorway or display over a mantle.











20 comments on “Niihau Shell Lei, a Little Bit of This and That

  1. dunelight says:

    This was awesome for it shows a part of the world and a culture I do not readily know and yet, I assume this island is part of the USA?


  2. Jodie Gracey says:

    Really enjoyed your blog on the shells. Hope you all had a great Christmas Karen.


  3. Dan Brown says:

    I, too, enjoyed the info and stunning photos you shared, Karen. Along with such disappearing beautiful craftwork and artistry, I am sad to know that the ranching ended, causing so many Hawaiians to leave the island to make a living. When I was a kid growing up in pre-statehood Honolulu in the 40’s and 50’s, Niihau held such mystery for us kids. We knew the island was privately-owned by the Robinsons, so no one could go there without express permission. Is Niihau the island on which a Japanese pilot was captured by the natives during the Pearl Harbor bombing?


    • Dan thank you so much for bringing up the question about the Japanese pilot. We discussed it at the museum several years back and it was so interesting. Yes, It was Niihau. I found this account on the pilot and the residence that puts a whole different light on the interment of the Japanese during world war II. I know you will enjoy reading it. Japanese invade Niihau


  4. What beautiful jewellery and it must take a talented and patient artist to create these lovely pieces. It is sad to hear of such such skill disappearing, everything is so generic and disposable these days.


  5. Wonderful, Karen. I took a peek earlier. I think I left some love for you on Toby’s FaceBook post. And it was finding this again through my WP feed that I realized I hadn’t left a note here.

    I wish I were half as skilled with a camera.


  6. Velta Maes says:

    These are beautiful. I seem to remember necklaces made of tiny shells. Don’t think they were the same ones as these though.


    • There are lots of shell leis that you can get when you come to hawaii their given as tourist gifts and so on but the shells come from the Philippines and other foreign countries and they’re not anywhere as nice as these tiny little leis. thanks for looking in aunt Velta.

      Sent from my iPhone



  7. They looks so nice. 🙂


  8. Annelies says:

    Beautyfull!! Thanx for sharing 🙂


  9. Kevin Roberts says:

    Karen – thank you for the lovely history lesson and for sharing those beautiful photos of the shell leis. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


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