Introduction to Hawaiian Shell Jewelry
Purple puka shell, north shore Oahu.
When people think of Hawaiian shell jewelry they instantly go back to the classic white choker-length strands of puka shells that were all the rage back in the 1960's & 1990’s. Puka means “hole” in Hawaiian as these little beads are formed naturally from cone shells and years of polishing and tumbling in the surf. The puka craze officially started back in the 1960’s and reached a high point in the 1970’s where people were flocking to Hawaii trying to gather these shells to make their own strands. As genuine puka shells became scarce due to demand many imitations began to appear which were often made of shell chips and disks from other places in the world. These are still sold in many tourist shops in Hawaii today. These are in a completely different class as they lack luster, quality, and the cultural significance of a real Hawaiian shell necklace. Even though puka are the most iconic, there are a few other types of shells used in more traditional Hawaiian jewelry that are not as well known to the tourist crowd. They are called Ni’ihau shells. Each type of shell contains a special meaning and significance to the Hawaiian people and while this ancient art is slowly dying off there is still a small community practicing the tradition of stringing Hawaiian shell leis.
Collection of Ni'ihau shell leis in a koa wood box.
Ni’ihau shells are used to describe a number of rare shells found on the island of Ni’ihau, the farthest west island in the Hawaiian archipelago. This island, also knows as “The Forbidden Island”, has been privately owned by the Smith family since the late 1800’s. Travel is restricted in order to preserve the native Hawaiian culture and language. While there are still some people practicing shell jewelry making, it is a dying art as the younger generation has been leaving this small island in search of a different way of life.
These shells can also be found on Oahu, Kaua’i and Maui but can not be called true “Ni’ihau” shells unless collected on the island of Ni’ihau. Ni’ihau shells are also the only type of shell classified by the Smithsonian as gemstones and insured as such. A single large necklace can cost ten thousand dollars or more.
Typically, Ni’ihau shells are split into three main types, Kahelelani, Momi and Laiki. Even though Ni'ihau is a Hawaiian island it is far from tropical. It is both the oldest and driest island in the chain and since it lacks the vital rainfall to produce colorful tropical flowers traditionally used in Hawaiian ceremonies the inhabitants turned to the colorful shells scattered across their shores. These shells are meticulously collected, sorted, cleaned, poked and strung in complex patterns. It can take years for a single necklace to be completed. While these necklaces are not as well known as puka they were also highly popular back in the 1960’s. Since these are extremely time-consuming to make the traditional long lei style necklaces shorter or choker styles became popular with the tourists and many high-end shops carried them. As with puka the popularity has since declined, but they can still be found across the islands and they are especially prevalent in Kaua'i.
Multicolor kahelelani shell necklace.
These are the most important of the Ni’ihau shells. They come in a rainbow of colors from white, hot pink, yellow, tan and every color in between. The name Kahelelani translates to “the royal going” as they were once only worn by royalty. The scientific name is Leptothyra verruca and the adult size only measures 3mm. Due to their very small size it often takes thousands to complete a single necklace. There are many different weaving styles including single strand necklaces, multi-strand or braided complex designs such as poepoe style.
Momi shell, strung pikake or jasmine flower style.
Momi are a type of dove shell, Euplica varians, and are commonly called a “pearl” shell for their resemblance to a fine strand of pearls. They are traditionally worn in long single strand up to 6 feet in length which can be wrapped and worn to weddings or other celebratory occasions. While they are mostly white they can also be brown, gold, blue or have stripped or spotted patterns. They are commonly tied into the “pikake” style which resembles a jasmine flower.
Multi strand laiki shell (white) with colored kahelelani.
Graphicomassa margarita are also known as rice shells and are the simplest type of shell. They resemble a pure white polished grain of rice. Many thousands of them are strung in long multi-strand necklaces and are extremely beautiful paired with the various bright colors of Kahelelani.
Granulated cowry clasp on momi & kahelelani lei.
Other shells that are commonly used include cowrie shells which are used for clasps. The ends of the necklaces are tied and stuffed into the opening of the cowry and cotton is packed tightly over them. Either glue or beeswax (which is an older method) is applied on top to seal them. If the necklace is shorter and needs a clasp, hook and eye clasps are tied on to the string before it is put in the cowry.
Types commonly used are granulated cowries cypraea granulata, money cowries cypraea monetaria and snakehead cowries cypraea caputserpentis.
Sunrise shell or Pecten langfordi is a type of deep water scallop that has a striking orange, white, pink and yellow coloration reminiscent of a sunrise. They typically live between 300-600 feet under the waves and very rarely wash ashore. They are held in extremely high regard to the Hawaiian people and were once used as currency on the island. They are popular and often worn as single pendants on silver or gold chains or strung with accompanying shells. If you watch carefully you can spot them on shows like Hawaii 5-0!
Where to Buy
While many tourist shops still sell puka shells (or imitation puka) to eager tourists there is a completely different type of shell jewelry being created on the islands. Each handmade necklace is a work of art and patience. These shells are beautiful natural gifts from the ocean and for hundreds of years the Hawaiian people have been crafting them into heirlooms. Each type of shell has its own feeling and connection to the island.