Every winter, storm waves crash onto the coast of Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island,” Niihau supplying abundant quantities of empty, miniature sea-snail shells which are hurled shoreward by the waves and wash upon many beaches.
Niihau – covering just 70 square miles – is the smallest of the seven inhabited Hawaiian Islands and this volcanic island is home to the world’s tiniest treasures – the unique shells of Niihau.
Niihau’s closest neighbor island, Kauai, is 17 miles to its northeast but Niihau’s terrain is vastly different with its low lying and arid soil. The reference “Forbidden” refers to it being privately owned and closed to uninvited visitors. The self-sufficient residents have no modern amenities and retain their ancient culture by speaking only Hawaiian and being occupied with tending sheep and cattle and tapping into their gold mine of diminutive shells.
During the warm Hawaiian winter months, families walk or bike down dusty roads to the pristine beaches and coves to spend long days in collecting shells. Once gathered, the shells are spread out to dry and later sorted, graded and strung into delicate leis or necklaces.
There are nearly as many ways of stringing leis as there are variations in the shells themselves. Styles include classic single-strung white momi leis ranging from 60 to 75 inches in length, rope leis consisting of hundreds of minute kahelelani shells, and garlands woven into geometric patterns, some including seeds in the line-up.
Leis making is painstaking and time consuming but the creative and patient Niihau artisans regularly create intricate leis of uncommon beauty with each leis being unique.