Pupu o Ni'ihau


Today was May Day, better known as Lei Day in Hawaii. The schools always have pageants and the children perform a hula or song for their ohana, usually decked out in their flower leis. It is sooo sweet, and I always looked forward to it when my keiki were young.

Today's post is in celebration of another sort of lei. Instead of flowers, these leis are made of gifts from the sea. The breathtaking shell lei are strung with tiny gems washed up on the shores of Ni'ihau and Kauai. The debris line during the winter months is scattered with the shells . Pickers spend many hours picking shells with tweezers, often lying in the sand to be close enough to better see the tiny gems. Many hours in the sun can yield a film canister of shells.

Once the shells are gathered, they are sorted into shell types, sizes and colors, discarding any flawed shells. Removing grains of sand from inside the shells is a delicate process and has to be successfully accomplished in order to pierce the hole for stringing. A stainless steel awl that is sharpened often is used to create the puka (hole). Depending on the lei style, the shell is pierced in a particular place. I've read that an average of one out of three shells break during this process.

There are several styles of leis, some strung in patterns similar to flowers, some strung singly and wound around a cloth foundation, some sewn in layers on cloth in the style of feather hat bands. Whatever the style, the love and patience of this art form is a way of life, a spiritual practice.

I am fortunate to have multi-strand Kahelelani lei from the 1950s. This fuzzy shot posted is a picture I took through a magnifying glass of my necklace. I thought it might be fun to try and see the detail of the colors and patterns on the shells. These are the smallest turban shells, measuring 3-5 mm. Kahelelani are the most tedious to collect, sort, pierce and string, and the most expensive. I have been thinking about having my lei re-strung, and began researching possibilities. A wonderful site I discovered belongs to a talented couple, a photographer Lisa Seed, and a lei maker Rob Arita. Their Hawaiian Lei web site is an oddessy of beauty. Rob's striking leis are filled with aloha, start to finish. Lisa's photographs capture the beauty of these gifts from the sea. I am posting two of Lisa's photos today. Her shots are the obvious clear and professional photos. You are invited to visit their site, perhaps choose a piece of jewelry.....it will be an heirloom to cherish.

I hope you've enjoyed this story, and if you are blessed with a special piece of Ni'ihau jewelry, it also has been on an amazing journey....wear it well and with aloha.

Happy Lei Day!
A hui hou,