Rhonetta Tate of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii models two styles of Niihau shell leis. The three strands of pink Niihau kahelelani shells are sewn poepoe -- rope -- style, and sell for $6,500. In the longer lei, Niihau kahelelani and larger white momi shells are sewn lokelani style. The three strands sell for $3,500.

The real deal

Genuine Niihau shells
have lasting quality

If Pamela Ka'ilikini Dow could turn back time, she might have added marine biologist credentials to her resume long ago. Then she certainly would have conducted the experiments to prove once and for all that the Leptothyra verruca, or pinhead-sized wart turbans that live in the waters surrounding Niihau, have evolved differently from those residing elsewhere around the Hawaiian islands.

Is it real?

Ni'ihau Shell authentication:

Bishop Museum: Noon to 5 p.m. today and tomorrow

Na Mea Hawai'i/Native Books: At Ward Warehouse, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

The difference may mean little to the average beach-goer picking up a few pretty shells here and there, but for the dozens of women who create Niihau shell jewelry, it could mean no less than life or death for the cottage industry.

Dow is not aware of any research that would prove her theory, but based on anecdotal observations of the women who work with the shells, and her own experiences, backed by environmental assessments and reef studies, she's concluded that Niihau shells hold their color over time and are less prone to deterioration than shells found elsewhere in the islands.

"If people are selling shells that are not Niihau, and the shells' properties and characteristics change, (the buyer) at some point in time can make the assessment that all the shells from the state are compromised," she said. "That would be a terrible mistake, and not necessarily true of Niihau shells."

Because of the limited access to Niihau shells, they can cost thousands of dollars, depending on size, and Dow -- who runs the Kauai gift shops Forever Kaua'i and Waimea Canyon General Store, and whose "Forever Ni'ihau" line of shell jewelry is carried at Na Mea Hawai'i/Native Books at Ward Warehouse -- says she's heard dozens of stories in which buyers were duped into buying imposter shells.

Most recently, a woman showed her a lei that she had purchased for $1,800, which, because it was not actually made of Niihau shells, did not have the same market value, according to Dow. This is subjective because there is no legal standard for the shell industry to date.

"My heart sank for a lot of reasons," Dow said. "First, I feel badly when I have to be the bearer of bad news. But when I saw that, I realized there are people in the marketplace who don't really understand the repercussions or harm that does."

Dow and a group of Niihau women have been traveling from island to island for five years on a mission to educate consumers and to stress the importance of keeping Niihau shell lei craftsmanship separate from all other forms of shell jewelry, just as Kona coffee has an identity separate from other islands' coffee products.

She gained more support when, unknown to her at the time, legislative bill HB2569 was introduced earlier this year to ensure accurate identification of Niihau shell products. The bill was unanimously passed by the House and Senate this session, and is awaiting the approval or veto of Gov. Linda Lingle.

Tiny Niihau shells are technically Leptothyra verruca.

Jon Riki Karamatsu, 41st District Representative, said he recognized the potential for fraud, particularly with the growth of Internet sales, and introduced the bill to protect buyers. If the bill is passed, the Department of Agriculture will be called upon to work with those in the industry to set standards for identification.

"Enforcement will take some time, but the main thing is to get it on the books so consumers can be confidant in knowing what they are getting," Karamatsu said.

Getting ahead of the law, Dow and four Niihau artists will be Honolulu for a week to authenticate and document Niihau shell lei brought to them at Bishop Museum today and tomorrow, and Na Mea Hawai'i/Native Books at Ward Warehouse Wednesday through Sunday.

She stresses that the event is not an appraisal, so no dollar value or market price will be given. Owners will, however, receive written verification for each lei, confirming that all shells are from Niihau, the shell names and lei design.

It's easy to see how the Niihau shell industry could become a victim of its own success. Niihau's history of private ownership meant that the isolated indigenous Hawaiian population became keepers of the craft of Niihau shell lei-making.

The mystique of the Forbidden Island was transferred to the turbans, especially the tiniest gemlike shell known as kahehelani ("pathway to heaven").

"In the Niihau way of thinking, the shells are considered gifts from the sea. Their feeling about the shells is different from yours or mine or people on the outside," Dow said. "The respect for this art is passed on from generation to generation. They're very proud of this heritage."

As the reputation of the shells and Niihau artisans has grown, so have a legion of imitators making do with other shells. They've found a willing clientele in buyers who wonder who's to say that Niihau and Kauai shells don't mix it up in surf and sand, landing on any old shore --the way bottles could reach our shores bearing messages from Japan and other points around the globe?

Dow said many assume a flat channel exists between the islands, but because each land mass represents a mountain peak, that flow between shores doesn't exist. The coastal environment is unique to each island, and Niihau is blessed with a limited population, no industry and no river runoff that would damage the coral bed habitat of the turbans. As a result, Niihau shell artisans inherited an unspoiled ecosystem "uninterrupted by man," Dow said, which might explain the superiority of the Niihau shell.

Dow saw her first Niihau shell jewelry in 1958, when she says her parents were lucky enough to travel to the Forbidden Island. Before they returned with hundreds of loose shells, she had never seen such variety in color, including chocolate browns, rosy pinks, sunny yellows and moss greens.

"The colors never changed as far as I can remember, and that has always impressed me," she said. "Of course if you leave it out in the sun, it's going to fade, but with reasonable care we have not seen that change."

If care is not taken now to protect the Niihau shell, its fate could be similar to the low-end puka shells once found in abundance on Oahu, but rarely seen today, although plastic imitators fill Waikiki tourist shops.

"At any one time there's only been 200 people on Niihau, and that's all who have been interacting with that environment," Dow said. "And as long as that continues we'll continue to see those beautiful shells on that shoreline."

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