Niihau Shells: Hawaii’s Seashell Gemstones

Multi-strand Niihau shell lei on display
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Did you know that a single lei made of Niihau shells 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? Let’s learn more about the “diamond of Hawaii.” 

The Origins of Niihau Shells

These treasured lei are created with hundreds of unique Hawaii shells gathered on remote beaches of the “Forbidden Isle” of Niihau. 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.

The shells found on Niihau are rare and beautiful, and the lei-making involves detailed and skilled artistry. Plus, the seclusion of Niihau means any product originating on their shores is even more valuable. So, over the years, the popularity and demand for Niihau shells grew. 

A Treasured History

Niihau Shell Lei have 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. And when Queen Kapiolani went to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887, she brought along jewelry made of the rare shells.

Creating the Jewelry

On Niihau, winter swells wash shells onto the island’s shoreline. The types of Niihau shells are kahelelani, laiki, momi, and kamoa. Hot-pink and black kahelelani shells are the most rare and valuable, while white momi shells are the most common.

Residents gather them and keep only the nicest ones to make jewelry. They’ll craft the jewelry themselves or send them to artisans on other islands. After the shells are gathered and sorted, creating a lei from them can take up to six months. 

Niihau Shells are the only type of shell in the world that’s insurable as a gemstone.

Buying Jewelry Made of Niihau Shells

Today, you will see these 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 Niihau 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 this valuable jewelry while in Hawaii, be sure that the seller can provide a certificate of authenticity. Otherwise, it is most likely fake. 

Not all Niihau Shell Lei cost tens of thousands of dollars – simple ones may be a few hundred. You can also purchase earrings and other jewelry items featuring the shells. 

However, a few retailers on all major islands sell authentic Niihau lei and jewelry, including the Bishop Museum and Honolulu Academy of Arts (on Oahu) and Waimea Canyon General Store (on Kauai). Maui Ocean Center and Maui Hands offer them on Maui, while Harbor Gallery is the only place to find them on Hawaii Island.