Legally, this term refers only to shells actually gathered on the shores of the Forbidden Island. However, the term generally refers to three different shells that are commonly used to make Ni‘ihau shell lei: kahelelani, momi, and lāiki, as well as a fourth one, kāmoa, which is frequently used to add contrasting color.
Because these shells have a variety of colors and markings, Ni‘ihau artisans use descriptive terms to differentiate them.
Shells are generally identified by first indicating the kind of shell, such as kahelelani, momi, lāiki, etc., and then adding any qualifying terms, usually relating to color. Common colors are ke‘oke‘o (white), ‘ākala (pink), lenalena (yellow), and ‘ōma‘oma‘o (green). Shades of colors are often identified as ‘āhiehie (light) or ikaika (dark). A few other terms include kahakaha (striped), ‘ōnikiniki (spotted), ‘āpu‘upu‘u (bumpy), and even waha ‘ula‘ula (red mouth).
Just a word of caution when identifying Ni‘ihau shells. Although most of the names given in this website are fairly standard among shell lei makers, the shells pictured here and the descriptive names were all supplied by Kanani, an experienced shell lei artisan. There may be variations, however, in the names that other lei makers commonly use.
English translations of these names, used when describing a lei to someone who is not a speaker of Hawaiian, may also vary and include a variety of colorful descriptions such as “butterscotch” and “hot pink.”
The value of a lei is also impacted by the availability of certain shells. While the off-white momi shell is extremely common and easy to find, hot-pink and black kahelelani are very rare, so a lei which includes these shells will be priced significantly higher than a similar lei made with shells of colors which are readily available.
To give you a better perspective of how tiny some of these shells are, the different kinds of shells pictured in this section are also shown next to a quarter from the series of quarters minted with designs honoring each of the states. This Hawaiian quarter, minted in 2008, shows Kamehameha I, the warrior king who united all of the Hawaiian islands, and also includes the State motto. The words of the motto are generally attributed to King Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli, who reportedly spoke them on July 31, 1843, when sovereignty was restored to the Hawaiian kingdom after a brief British occupation.