Known as the jewel of the ocean, Kahelelani shells are very small and rare. They are mostly found on a few beaches in Kauai and on the forbidden island of Nii’hau. Nii’hau is a small island 18 miles west of Kauai. It is said to be the first home of Pele, the goddess of fire who is believed to have created the Hawaiian islands. The shells are named after Chief Kahelelani, an ancient chief of Ni’ihau. The shells are often referred to as Nii’hau shells, but this is only true if they come from the forbidden island itself.
Kahelelani shells are incredibly small, up to 4mm. The shells come from a tiny sea snail, Leptothyra verruca. They come in several different varieties, but the most common are white shells with red or pink dots. The markings on the shell were believed by ancient Hawaiians to represent the spinning cosmos, or the pathway to heaven. The shells were also said to have “mana,” or, special powers.
Flawless Kahelelani shells are considered gem quality, and are used in Hawaii to make jewelry. Kahelelani shells are the smallest shell used to make leis in Hawaii. The shells are sewn into the lei in a very intricate process that can take up to 6 months to make one lei. Each lei can range in price from several hundreds to several thousands of dollars.
Kahelelani shells are most abundant in the winter months, or after storms when the surf is rough and more of the shells wash up on shore. The best beaches to collect Kahelelani shells in Kauai include Anini Beach, Tunnels Beach, and Hanalei Bay.