Privately-owned by the Robinsons, with strict limited access, Ni‘ihau is the island that is least known and visited, and as such has the most intrigue (and thus referred to as the Forbidden Isle.)
In 1863, King Kamehameha IV put Ni‘ihau up for sale. A purchase price of $10,000 was agreed to with buyers James and Francis Sinclair. But Kamehameha IV died on November 30 before the closing, so Royal Patent No. 2944 shows his brother, Kamehameha V, completed the transaction in 1864. Ownership was subsequently passed down through the family.
The 70-square-mile island (about half the size of Lāna‘i and twice as large as Kaho‘olawe) is the smallest inhabited island in Hawai‘i with 84 residents (mostly Native Hawaiian) and 35 houses (DBEDT & Census.)
The island lacks basic municipal infrastructure. There are no paved roads (walking, horseback or bicycle are the only transportation options on Ni‘ihau.) No water and wastewater systems. No stores. No restaurants. No doctors. No police. No fire department. (Ni‘ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation)
“‘Ni‘ihau shells’ means seashells harvested from the island of Ni‘ihau, its waters, or its beaches. [N]o person shall offer, display, expose for sale, or solicit for sale any product or jewelry item fabricated, processed, or manufactured with seashells …”
“… that is described, labeled, or identified using the term ‘Ni‘ihau’ or ‘Niihau’, either alone or in conjunction with other words, or in a trade or brand name …”
“… unless: (1) One hundred per cent of all shells in the product or jewelry item are Ni‘ihau shells; and (2) The product or jewelry item is fabricated, processed, or manufactured entirely within this State.” (Hawai‘i Revised Statutes, §486-118.5)
Pu‘uwai village, on the western (leeward) side of the island, is the population center of Ni‘ihau. On this side of the island are the main beaches where Ni‘ihau shells are collected that make the famous and collectible Ni‘ihau lei pūpū.
The origin of the Ni‘ihau shell lei is lost in antiquity, but it is clear that at the time of Captain James Cook first contact in 1778, shell lei were in existence.
A Ni‘ihau shell lei is in the British Museum and was most likely collected by Cook during one of his several visits to the island of Ni‘ihau.
Although ‘shell ornaments’ described by early visitors were primarily made of seashells, some were also made of land shells which were once common throughout the Islands. In the mid-1800s, hula dancers were described as wearing necklaces of shells as well as flower garlands and feather ornamentation.
There are three different shells primarily used to make Ni‘ihau shell lei: kahelelani, momi and laiki. The color of the shells range from bright pink to pale yellow, and can have various types of markings on them.
Fabricating shell lei was not limited to Ni‘ihau, but it was there that this Hawaiian art flourished, most likely due to the abundance of shells available on the island’s beaches and the scarcity of flowers because of the arid climate.
In 1887, Queen Kapi‘olani had a formal portrait taken in New York on her way to attend Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. In the portrait, she wore a multi-strand lei of ivory-colored Ni‘ihau shells which complemented her formal Victorian dress.
Queen Emma, who showed more appreciation of Hawaiian crafts than any other of the Hawaiian royalty, also wore Ni‘ihau shell lei for formal portraits as well as when she was presented to Her Britannic Majesty.
It should be noted that during this time the shell lei was adapted to Victorian jewelry styles which included adding a clasp, thus elevating the traditional lei to the status of a piece of fine jewelry which was worn with the most elegant Western dress.
It is also interesting to note that later, particularly during the early- and mid-1900s, shell lei were more commonly reserved for occasions when Hawaiian attire was worn.