Niihau Shell Lei: A Fine Hawaiian Art

Multi-strand Niihau shell lei on display
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Did you know that a single Niihau shell lei can sell for as much as $30,000?

That’s right, a lei that costs as much as a brand-new car or even a downpayment on a house. But what makes them so special? First off, they’re made with hundreds of unique shells gathered on remote beaches of the “Forbidden Isle.” The shells are so tiny that it takes many, many hours to assemble into a piece of jewelry. This has, in turn, developed into a fine Hawaiian folk art that only very few artisans practice today.

According to the Niihau Cultural Heritage Foundation’s website, the shell lei has been a part of Hawaii’s history for centuries. Early western explorers, such as Captain James Cook and Captain George Vancouver, received such jewelry when they arrived in Hawaii. Even Hawaiian royalty cherished this fine art, according to the foundation.

Today, you will see the shell lei making a comeback at events, such as the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo and other cultural events. Worn by both men and women, the shell lei has become a symbol of Hawaiian elegance. Sadly, though, impostors have found their way into this respectable art form by selling replicas of the valued Niihau shell lei.

This prompted the Hawaii State Legislature to pass a bill in 2004 that protects both the jewelry and jewelers. The bill states that all “seashell items” may only be labeled with the term “Niihau” if 100-percent of the shells are from that island and if the jewelry is made entirely in Hawaii.

If you’re planning to buy Niihau shell jewelry while in Hawaii, be sure that the seller can provide a certificate of authenticity; otherwise, it is most likely fake. As a side note, not every piece of shell jewelry will be $30,000 but ranges from $300 and up. Just keep in mind that the more strands of shell incorporated into the lei, the more expensive it is likely to cost.

There are many retailers on Kauai, Oahu and Maui that sell authentic Niihau shell lei and jewelry, including the Bishop Museum and Honolulu Academy of Arts (on Oahu) and Waimea Canyon General Store (on Kauai). Maui Ocean Center is the only place on Maui to get Niihau shell jewelry. For more information, visit the foundation’s website at

Source: Niihau Cultural Heritage Foundation
Photo Courtesy: eBay, lei is made with 25 strands and selling for $22,000