Learn How To Make Ni'ihau Shell Earrings - Class Taught by Kuana in Redondo Beach California 2022
There is a delicate line that runs between protecting a cultural practice and allowing it to become forgotten. The art of Ni’ihau shell lei making has always been surrounded by secrecy in order to protect not only the people but the land and natural resources of the islands. Unless a person is raised in a family with the ability to source these precious shells and knowledge of how to prepare and weave them into beautiful jewelry they often have a difficult time finding a kumu, or teacher. Kuana, who’s family originates from Ni’ihau, allows those willing to learn, a way to experience this practice and create their own piece of Ni’ihau shell jewelry. Being a master of the art himself he tells of the history, hardships and great skill that goes into the art of Ni’ihau shell jewelry making.
As an award winning Hawaiian musician, Kuana Torres Kahele travels around the world performing but also offers classes on traditional Hawaiian practices such as hula, chant, fresh lei and Ni’ihau shell lei making. He is a kind, generous and patient teacher that is highly skilled in his craft and enjoys passing his knowledge on to students.
Arriving at a clifftop beach parking lot with the last of the morning’s, surfers, divers and swimmers, the class was held a few blocks from Redondo Beach at the old Masonic lodge. It is a turn of the century brick building with cream stucco set along a palm tree lined street. Classic California style. The interior holds a large community space with vaulted geometric ceilings and a high polished wood floor. Having paid for the class online, check in consisted of signing in and creating a name badge. Today everyone was crafting the same piece of jewelry, double crown flower earrings made of white momi shells. A single kit was passed out to each person as they entered. Each set cost $75 and consisted of prepared momi shells, waxed nylon thread and gold filled hook earrings, perfect for sensitive ears. Some people brought lights, mats, scissors or other tools to assist them in their work.
There was plentiful seating among two long row tables, though people tended to sit in groups. The hall was open air and there was a booth displaying shirts, cd’s and a wide variety of beautiful quality earrings and jewelry to purchase. Kuana’s signature gold momi earrings are shown and discounts are offered to class attendants.
Right on time Kuana introduces himself and begins to tell a long and in depth history of the people and shells of Ni’ihau. He tells of the sale of Ni’ihau, the effort it takes to collect the shells, sort and prep them, the different colors and what makes up the high prices some leis command.
Ni’ihau is the farthest island in the Hawaiian chain. Its right across the sea from Kaua’i, if you’ve been to Hanapepe or Kekaha you’ve seen Ni’ihau right across the channel. The island is privately owned and was purchased by Elizabeth Sinclair for just $10,000 in the 1800’s. It was sold by King Kamehameha V with the provision that there will come a day when the people will need help and when that day comes please “malama”. Please take care of them.
We fast forward twenty five years. A sickness began to ravage the islands by way of all the different ships that were coming to port. The seamen were bringing different foreign illnesses and as you would expect an indigenous culture had no antibodies to fight it off. During that time, as recorded in a native Hawaiian newspaper, over 200,000 Hawaiians were lost in the course of two years. That is why today it is hard to find a pure Hawaiian, because we lost so much. During this time Elizabeth closed the boarder of Ni’ihau, nobody in, nobody out. She did that for two years and it worked. She kept Ni’ihau safe, no one got sick. This is what the king was talking about when he said protect my people.
Another 50-75 years go by and Elizabeth never really lifted that taboo. It has altered some as the years went but today the Robinsons, descendants of the Sinclair’s, still keep it in place. If you are not from Ni’ihau, or have no blood ties to Ni’ihau you cannot go. That is why they have the poetic name of the Forbidden Island.
In respect to the Ni’ihau shells and why they are so pricy. I’m going to start with the Ni’ihau people. In it’s heyday Ni’ihau was a thriving community. There was a cattle ranch, they raised honey and exported charcoal. All the men worked on the ranch and the women were homemakers and the majority were also lei artisans. And so for the women living there when they finished cleaning the house they would go down to the beach and collect shells. Living there is like living in the 1800’s. There’s no stores, paved roads, electricity, nothing. You have a house but no luxuries of modern life. You live off the land, you live off the sea. There’s only one work truck on the island and that is owned by the ranch. And it’s used by the men. They go around the island on dirt roads and make sure the animals have enough water in the troughs. So if you are an artisan, a women lei maker you know and stay in the village. There’s only one village, nobody’s spread out and everyone lives central. The name of the village is Pu’uwai.
Different beaches around the island produce different shells and colors. You can’t just go to one beach and get all the shells. If you wanted a particular type of shell, say you wanted the yellows, you have to go to the beach that has the yellows. But if you wanted the whites, blues and caramels, that beach has them. You have to walk and there is no car. If you have a horse you are lucky, but most people just walk.
Ni’ihau lives in the shade of Kaua’i and as a result Kaua’i sucks up all the moisture, so Ni’ihau is really dry. And as a result hot. They don’t have any flowers, forest. So that is one of the main reasons the men have to go twice per week to check and make sure the troughs have water. So if I’m a lei artisan I usually go early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun is not so relentless. If I want to go out to a particular beach on the other side of the island I know Tuesday the men are going on the truck and I hitch a ride. When we pass the beach I want I jump off and stay over there and pick. I have to sleep on the beach cause the truck doesn’t come back until Thursday. Or I can walk back. That is what life is like just gathering shells.
After you get a bag or container of mixed shells you go home and you sort by type. It is a family process. Once you sort by type you sort by color. There are many colors of shell and to make sure they do it really well, they do it several times. To make sure they got it all sorted right. The next part is to prep the shells. You have to poke the shells one by one to make them ready to be able to be strung. They don’t come with puka inside them. You have to make them. In Ni’ihau they have handcrafted tiny little pokers. In Hawaiian they are called a tui. Traditionally they would take an ironwood tree and sharpen it down to a point. Certain size tui were for certain size shells. Momi shells are a little bit bigger. Kahelelani, which are the tiny, tiny shells, need a finer point because they were really small. During the days of the monarchy when western products were still making their way to Hawaii they used shark teeth. Particularly the mako shark which had long skinny teeth. That’s what they used in the old days before we got iron.
After sorting and prep, the artisans in their brain have enough information to guestimate how many shells they have in terms of types. And so the wheels in the brain start to turn in terms of what they are going to make. And it depends on the times, what they would make. So back in the 1940’s-1950’s long white leis down to the knee were popular. Solid white Laiki shells. Laiki in Hawaiian is rice because they look like long pieces of rice.
Shells come in array of colors. Momi have six colors with caramel (momi kahakaha) and smoke gray bluish (momi uliuli) being the rarest. They don’t turn up as often as other colors. They are priceless. Each time you go to the beach you might find one or two of that particular color. So to make a lei you are looking at two, ten or fifteen years. That is why today, you hardly see solid colors on a particular strand. Especially those rarer colors. Because it takes almost a lifetime to collect the color. In the grand spectrum of color you also see a lighter and darker side of all colors. Where they fall on the spectrum determines the price. The lighter to middle is priced lower. On the deep side they can become electric. It is so bright it looks fake. If you are looking at those kinds of colors than you garner an additional name to your shell color, ikaika, which is the strongest of that color.
So now you know all the factoring reasons behind the price of these shells. What goes into get them. The making process takes equally as long as gathering if not longer. So you are looking at turnaround time from beach to neck sometime within a year. Rarer, stronger colors, maybe a few years. Depends on the color and shell type. Also the fact that we cannot go get the shells, they have to go. And they turn up only one place in the world. Only Hawaii.
If you have ever been to Kaua’i on the west side, the sun sets right behind Ni’ihau. For Ni’ihau people the sunset falls right behind another island we cannot see from Kaua’i called Lehua. When the sun touches the water there is a poetic reference to the sunset, kalavelo. It means lava sun. Velo means to flutter like a flag in the wind. It also means when the sun touches the water. It creates a path, a streak of light right across the ocean and it hits the beaches of Ni’ihau and they glow orange from the sun. It is beautiful to see. If you follow that path out toward the sun into the vast open sea you see another island further down called Nihoa. An uninhabited island like Lehua. Between those islands is a reef system. That is where all the shells come from. Each island has different channels in the water and all the channels have names. The channel around Ni’ihau is called Kaluakahi. It is often mentioned and celebrated in Hawaiian songs and chants because of the movement and what it does. It is different from the other channel because it goes around and weaves throughout the islands. Kaluakahi is the only channel that acts like a lei. It comes from the open sea, dips and picks up all the shells as it makes it way to Ni’ihau and spits them out. It goes around Ni’ihau and comes back together down the rest of the island chain. It’s like a lei for Ni’ihau. So that’s why the shells get deposited all around the beaches. I cannot explain why certain beaches get a particular color or type. Its an unnatural phenomenon. That’s what it does. So Kaluakahi comes back together and hits the second island Kaua’i. Then Moloka’i, Lanai then keeps going all the way down to Hawaii island. So Ni’ihau gets the first crack at the shells then Kaua’i. The farther away you get the less of a chance of finding shells.
When you gather shells from Ni’ihau versus other islands its super easy to tell. Because on Ni’ihau they have a natural finish to them, as though they have been glossed or polished or even lacquered. They have a shiny finish, a sheen. That is the biggest giveaway they are from Ni’ihau. It doesn’t matter how old a lei gets. As time goes by, twenty or thirty years the lei may get dirty but not dull. Just clean them with lukewarm water and a soft toothbrush. The shine comes back. It never goes away. Once Kulakahi passes Ni’ihau the first thing the shells lose is the sheen. So Kaua’i shells are dull. No more shine, all dry. The farther the shells travel the more the lose. So after the sheen, they start to lose color. For example a hot pink Kahelelani. Electric pink, once it leaves Ni’ihau the color changes. On Kaua’i the shells are peach. They don’t have those shells on Ni’ihau. The farther the shells travel they lose that pigmentation. It’ll turn almost blonde or white the farther it goes. Dark red from Ni’ihau, the lipstick red, by time it reaches Hawaii island, black. Ni’ihau has only certain colors. So if you see other colors it’s not from there. They enacted a law to protect the people where you can’t call your shell Ni’ihau if they were not gathered on Ni’ihau by the people of Ni’ihau. You can still call them leis which is what they are, but you cannot call them a Ni’ihau shell lei.
As his story concluded he asked everyone to take out their packet of shells. Today everyone was creating the same crown flower design. The shells were cleaned, tips cut off and holes poked. He explained each step, one at a time and in great detail allowing for everyone, no matter their skill level to keep up.
2. Start at the bottom of the earring with the largest shells and string one shell on each of the four strings (which was already tied in the center) from the large puka (opening) at the top and through the small puka on the side.
3. Tie a single knot by taking two of the strings and tying them together with the other two. Massage the shells and make sure they are tight and seated well.
4. String four more shells this time starting in the opposite direction with the string going through the small hole then the large one.
5. Tie a single knot.
6. Repeat steps 2 through 5 to form the second flower. Or popcorn as it was affectionately called.
7. Take two of the strings and pass them through the puka shell dome side up, through the jump ring at the bottom of the earring finding and back through the puka shell.
8. Pull tight until the finding and puka are flush against the shells.
9. Tie two knots by holding two strings in one hand and two in the other and creating a single loop. Repeat once more.
10. Clip the string very close to the puka and push in any visible remaining string under the puka.
11. E6000 works well and doesn’t yellow.
12. Finished! The hooks are gold filled and comfortable.
Kuana brought along a few of his impressive personal pieces to show the different colors of momi shells as well as a long completed lei showcasing the crown flower style in all of its stunning beauty.
This class was part of a weekend experience and other classes including, hula, fresh lei and chant were offered over three days. Robert Cazumero was also teaching, offering a glimpse into his own unique mastery and skills. Classes and updated schedules are offered on Kuana’s website along with finished jewelry, cd, dvd’s and other products. If you have the opportunity this class is a fantastic way to learn more about the history and technique of Ni’ihau shell jewelry making.