Here is one of the most praised snail specie on the planet! The Kahelelani shell. Commonly called “Niihau shell” the kahelelani is known for its detailed beauty and charming appearance. Endemic to Hawaii, they have been hand picked one by one, poked and strung into leis for centuries.
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The Hawaiian Islands have a rich and valuable indigenous culture that survives today as seen in the hula, surfing, chanting, and lei making. As with other ancient peoples Hawaiians adorned themselves with items they found in nature. Their ornaments were constructed of shells, seeds, coral, feathers, teeth, hair, bark, bone and whale ivory. Hawaiians created exquisite shell art jewelry using Kahelelani shells. As of today, these jewels from the sea are still collected and strung in the same manner as the ancients employed. The shells, commonly referred to as Niihau shells after the forbidden island of Niihau, are technically known as leptothyra verruca, a member of the family turbinidae. The true name of this precious gem of the ocean is the Kahelelani shell, named after an ancient chief of Niihau.
Kahelelani translated is “pathway to heaven” or “spiralway to heaven”. Although these shells are found on four of the Hawaiian Islands: Niihau, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai, it was the artisans from Niihau who initially introduced these shells to the world.
The Kahelelani shell is by far the most sought after of the rare Niihau and Kauaian shells. It is the smallest and therefore the most diffucult to collect and sew. The Kahelelani is also the most colorful shell used in Niihau and Kauaian shell leis. These shell leis have a rich history dating back hundreds of years. Members of Captain Cook’s expedition recorded in detail their observations of the lives and customs of the people and collected examples of their traditional culture, which included a string of tiny red Kahelelani shells.
Other explorers that followed his expedition noted the shell jewelry in their accounts. In 1873, Isabella Bird wrote in her book Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, “Niihau is famous…for the necklaces of shells six yards long as well as for the extreme beauty and variety of the shells which are found there.” When Queen Emma and Kamehameha were received by Brittanic majesty, her necklaces of Kahelelani shells created quite a sensation. More than any other member of Hawaiian royalty, Queen Emma was and avid collector and patron of the traditional arts. She took a particular interest in the shell leis of Niihau, known as lei pupu ‘o Niihau. By the 1900′s Niihau and it’s inhabitants were synonymous with the manufacture of shell leis. Although Niihau has been privately owned for almost 100 years, the change of ownership has done nothing to discourage the tradition of making lei pupu ‘o Niihau. The art has even traveled to the neighboring Garden Island of Kauai, where Kahelelani shells are found and sewn into jewelry as they were in days of old.
Today, as in the past the knowledge and skills required to make these leis is very rare. As of now, the Kahelelani shell lei is perceived with the value and lure of a precious stone. In history only the highest members of Hawaiian society such as the Ali’i and kahuna could wear Kahelelani shells. In some pacific island societies, shells indicated the wearer’s position in a complex social hierarchy. Shells were insignias of power and often traded as commodities. In Hawaii shells are said to have mana, a potent spiritual power. Kahelelani shell jewelry represents the one of last genuine Hawaiian art forms available.
Healing and Balance
Many aboriginal tribes from around the world believe that possessing certain shells gave an individual spiritual power. In Hawaii it is the mana that is stored in a person’s bones. Mana, meaning potent spiritual power, is the metaphysical essence that creates a person’s charisma and soul. A Kahelelani shell is the protective covering of a very small snail classified as a mollusk, from the Greek word mollis , meaning “soft-bodied”. So in essence the Kahelelani shell is where the mana of this miniature creatures is stored. If you look closely at the shell, it serves many purposes.
First it is a home, a protective armor shell, shielding the soft creature from a hazardous ocean environment. It is also a means of communication, self perpetuation and self expression. The many striated, spotted, spiral, and variegated colors act as camouflage in a predatory marine environment. The complex spiral dots, dashes and patterns that adorn the shells are a means of communication, a language of letters, a code of precise, thoughts and feelings. Look closely at thousands and thousands of these shells and no two are exactly alike, as if the patterns are a diagram of the critter’s DNA, spiraling inward to a central point around a three dimensional matrix of perfect geometry; the golden ratio. In picking and sorting countless shells, your eye becomes attune to the spiraling curling patterns. The designs mimic the curling waves when viewed from straight down.
The Hawaiians were aware of the shells multilayer meanings; for they were hyper aware of their environment and saw in the kahelelani shells a design that represented the spinning cosmos. It is through science that we can literally see a galaxy, a fern tendril, a spinning double helix,a DNA strend or a spiraling pattern of a shell and see the similarities. Maybe the colors and patterns of the kahelelani are symbols of natural selection, very similar to a parrot’s bright plumage, genetic dominate traits passed through breeding. The subtle cosmic symbology of the shells is profound. It radiates in the subconscious for the designs are so small, they are rarely consciously inspected.
Shells stimulates intuition, sensitivity, imagination and adaptability. They help to enhance mental clarity and provides insight into decision-making. Shells promote cooperation between the self and others, as well as within the self. It provides cohesive energy for groups.They treat hearing disorders and calcium deficiencies. They assist the healing of broken bones and general dysfunctions of the spinal canal and the nervous system. Shells enhance the assimilation of vitamins A and D.