Niihau Shell Leis by Rob Arita
Welcome to Aloha Kahelelani!
Kahelelani are the tiniest and most prized of the Hawaiian
shells that are sewn into leis. They are commonly referred
to as Niihau shells but are actually one of the the
three types that are used for making Hawaiian shell
jewelry. The other two are laiki and momi, which are
larger. In comparison, a double strand choker of kahelelani
will require 600-700 shells as opposed to about 250
for a double strand of momi.
Kahelelani are found in varying degrees on most of the
Hawaiian Islands, but are most abundant on Niihau and
Kauai. They have been sewn into leis for centuries.
I use only gem quality shells from Kauai and Niihau
and each piece has precise origins of the shells used.
If a lei is all Kauai shells, all Niihau shells, or
a mixture, it will be labelled accordingly. A gem quality
shell from Kauai has the same value as a gem quality
Niihau shell as far as my pricing goes. As a comparison,
and I think you will agree, 24 carat gold from California
is equal in value to 24 carat gold from Oregon.
The niihau shell lei making process is tedious from
start to finish. On a good day of shell picking, a skilled
picker might harvest a film canister of prime quality
kahelelani shells in about four hours. All this time
is spent on hands and knees or lying in the sand. People
frequently ask if I go out and just scoop up the shells.
They are always shocked when they learn that they are
collected one at a time.
The best beaches produce kahelelani in a full range
of colors including tan, light pink, hot pink, red,
burgundy, brown, and olive green which is more abundant
on Niihau than Kauai. Kamoa is a yellow to gold turban
shell that is similar to kahelelani, but grown much
larger. Only the juveniles can be sewn into leis, usually
Once the shells are collected, they must be sorted by
size and color. The most difficult job is cleaning the
aperture of the shell which is almost always clogged
with a piece of sand, shell or coral. Finally, the shells
are pierced and strung.
Sewing lei kahelelani is a spiritual endeavor requiring
endless patience and love. We pray for the shells to
wash up on the beaches, acknowledging their magic and
beauty, realizing their integral part in our chain of
life on this planet. This intention creates pieces that
carry this aloha to the people who wear them- a prayer
in a strand, reminding us of ways that are being forgotten
in our technological world.
My name is Rob Arita and I am the exclusive maker of
the niihau shell leis that are showcased on this site.
Aloha kahelelani is dedicated to preserving the ancient
Hawaiian art of shell lei making. My specialty is lei
kahelelani poepoe which is sewn round or as a kahelelani
rope. All of the pieces are of museum quality and custom
orders are always welcome. Enjoy looking at the photos
of our finest pieces taken by my wife Lisa Seed!
through the photos on this web site to see niihau shell
leis, sunrise shell necklaces, lei Kahelelani, and niihau