|Photo by Yvette Cardozo|
The closest most folks get to Ni'ihau these days is one of the increasingly rare and pricey Ni'ihau shell necklaces. Lena Mendonca has never set foot on Hawaii's "mystery" island but she's been collecting the necklaces since 1968 and probably knows more about them than anyone else you'll meet.
To the casual observer, a Ni'ihau necklace can look like a string of standard tourist shells. But it isn't. These are special shells, says Lena. After winter storms, they wash up onto Ni'ihau beaches and local women crawl along the high water line, carefully gathering them one at a time. Because there is no large-scale commercial fishing and no chemicals in the water, these shells are pure and shiny.
And they are tiny. Each shell, the size of a pigeon pea, has to be drilled and strung. Half break in the process. Even tinier shell parts wind up in other necklaces, some of which take years to string.
The necklaces are strung either in a flower pattern or straight. There are usually at least three strands, though wedding leis can have 50 and when you hold them in your hand, they flow across your fingers.
And so, a wedding shell lei, maybe 60 inches long, might be worth $5,000 today. And there are necklaces of the tiny, really special pink, brown and yellow shells that could be worth $30,000.
If you were lucky enough to have bought a necklace, say, 20 years ago, you might have a valuable investment on your hands. Even today's will probably go up in value. Especially since fewer than a dozen women are still making necklaces and only a handful of them are young.
Just be careful, Lena warns, about fake necklaces that are soaked in wax to make them shiny and sold at too-cheap prices. And if you've got the real thing, treat it with care.
You can meet Lena Mendonca, along with her impressive necklace collection, every Wednesday morning from 9am - 1pm, at the Kauai Museum in downtown Lihue.