Act 91, a bill signed into law yesterday, prohibits jewelry from being labeled "Niihau" if it is not made mostly with shells from the island of that name. Rhonetta Tate of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii models two sets of Niihau shell leis.

Law affirms identity
of Niihau shell leis

New standards on craftsmanship
and materials must be met

Lei lecturer Pamela Dow thinks Niihau shell leis are treasures, deserving of a "special place of honor" under the law.

Now, the state agrees.

Under a bill Gov. Linda Lingle signed into law yesterday, Niihau shell leis will receive much the same protection as is given Kona coffee and other Hawaii-made products.

Act 91 prohibits jewelry from being labeled "Niihau" if it is not made mostly with shells from the island of Niihau.

The law also says Niihau shell leis must be strung within the state, and stipulates that Niihau shell leis be made with at least 80 percent of Niihau shells and labeled with the Niihau shell percentage content.

Dow, owner of Forever Kauai and Waimea General Store in Kekaha, testified in favor of the law in March.

Reached by phone yesterday, she called the law "a giant step forward."

"We have brought awareness," said Dow, who also sells the leis at Na Mea Hawaii and Native Books & Beautiful Things stores in Honolulu.

Dow said Niihau lei makers spend years collecting rare-colored shells, and the retail value of Niihau shell leis can run from $125 to $25,000.

"I am hoping that everyone will realize that Niihau shell art ... is separate from all other shell art," she said. "There is room in the art world for all of it; we just need to realize and accept the integrity of the Niihau shell art."

The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs is also in favor of the law, and said in a recent news release that not only are the "shells scarce -- with the collection of enough of some colors and types of shells taking years to make one lei -- but the craftsmanship of these special lei takes much skill, precision, patience and dexterity."

The bill was introduced by Rep. Jon Karamatsu (D, Waipahu-Waikele), who hoped with the new requirements to protect local business owners and prevent fraudulent sales.


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