The average experience of one's first shell lei certainly is special but as for the lei themselves? Most all of these are crafted overseas using questionable labor practices and non- local materials. Their worth is often in pennies while their artistic credibility may dip even lower. Not so for the exquisite and singular necklaces that hail from our reclusive northern neighbor island, Ni'ihau.
The process of assembling a single lei is a work of love and artistic ability that can take a week to a year or more to complete. Prices start in the high hundreds and can range to many thousands of dollars. It is an art form that has been passed down from generation to generation among families of that secluded isle. Today Niihau shell lei have garnered such widespread recognition that the shells used to create these necklaces are the only ones in the world classified as gems. They certainly are too!
A rainbow of colors, and rarer than gold, the shells that comprise each necklace are gathered from Ni'ihau beaches each winter when whole families go out in search. Then they are sorted by size and color, shells with imperfections are discarded, until enough are collected to create the artist's imagined art work. Crafted in a style similar to that of our better known flower lei, these necklaces are considered by some to be the finest of Polynesian art forms--in the past they adorned the kings and queens of royal Hawaii.
So the next time you find a strand of white shells placed around your neck, let it remind you of this unique and beautiful piece of our Hawaiian culture. The art form of Ni'ihau shell lei-making is a legacy of generations past and each new necklace created is a legacy for the future.
Isaac K. Warsh, Pacific Network
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