When Hawaii's Queen Emmalani posed for portraits in traditional Ni'ihau Lei, she created a sensation. Amidst that sensation, change happened. Victorian-style clasps helped bring Ni'ihau Shells from an obscure fascination to popular fine art.
Kauai Curators started with one simple vision: Return leimaking to the quality and craftsmanship worthy of the Shell of Royalty.
In 16 years of buying, curating, and repairing shell lei, we've seen deterioration in the artistry and durability that could and should be prevented. As more novices become the purveyors of Ni'ihau lei, the market is becoming saturated with pieces that don't represent the roots of this art form. Instead of selling whatever crosses our path, we help artists elevate their pieces to last for generations. We give our stringers the tools to achieve this and encourage their finest examples of creative expression. This is a step toward returning sovereignty to Ni'ihauan traditions as they enter the 21st century.
By actively creating a change similar to the Victorian-era shift, we hope more will see these shells as the ancestral heirlooms they truly are.
The definition of fair practice can be described best as what is Pono. This is a word used to define more than the principles of goodness. As the Hawaiian Dictionary defines: "Upright, Moral, proper, virtuous, and fair." We only make a sale or purchase that feels Pono. We establish this by being in honest contact with our artists and by comparing the time we would spend creating similar pieces. We also ask this of our stringers. What do they feel is fair?
It is costly to promote artists, invest in materials, and give commissions to galleries. To help care for the Lei Makers, we purchase much more than individual collectors at a time. Most Ni'ihauans also value their privacy since life on Ni'ihau is dedicated to family, worship, language, culture and creation of art.
To honor our artists, we purchase based on their needs as much as our own. In addition to buying and making orders to keep stringers supplied with steady work, we are flexible with work times during holidays, special occasions, births and celebrations. When a stringer has limited shells, we ask them what they can or want to make, from a platform of understanding of every detail that goes into making a lei. What the ocean gives to the beaches changes daily and seasonally. We work with what Ke Akua provides and give thanks to the loving hands that make these shells into Lei.
Promoting the Artform
One of the many aspects of being in this incredible trade requires continual education about the craft. This is evident in our paperwork and certificates we provide with each lei that describe the style, name of shells and provenance in both Hawaiian and English. We work with Hawaiian teachers to inform our clients about their Lei and the proper names. We answer questions and offer our time as volunteers at Non-Profits, Libraries and Universities. In 2015, Janelle attended the Philadelphia Shell Show to submit lei for awards. This led to our collection being showcased at Drexel University's Academy of Natural Sciences. This institution houses the 3rd largest shell collection in the world.
The year prior, she submitted Ni'ihau Lei at the Cape Cod Shell Show to offer further examples of the craft and it's beauty. The lei received First and Second place awards which were given to the stringers who created the lei. There are no cash prizes for these shows. It actually costs money to submit them, insure them and ship them to be displayed. We take these shells abroad for no personal gain because our dedication to oceanic arts is a responsibility that comes with this passion. It is the ocean that sustains us and gives us the shells which we love so much.
More recently, we set up a broad display of museum quality pieces at the Princeville Library on Kaua'i. This took half of our inventory out of rotation for over a month and was admired by many. The showcase was both Lei, tools used in Leimaking, and a magnified exhibit of shells from several islands to emphasize the differences between Ni'ihau shells and shells from Kaua'i, Maui, and O'ahu. There is a lot of misperception and lack of knowledge about authenticity, so we work daily to correct that by sharing these same samples at most of our shows.
In addition to these travels, we expand research on shell culture at every opportunity. At the Maui Ocean Center, we talked to biologists about ocean acidification and changes to Hawaii's reefs which has led to exhibitions in their Treasures Gallery. We've connected with the Palm Beach Historical society, the Sanibel island Bailey Matthews Shell Museum with offers to create a lecture series about why it is so important to care for our seas as a global community. These are volunteer efforts often met with controversy. People question why a person who is not from Hawaii would pursue this art form to the extent that we have. In truth, many leimakers we work with are extraordinarily shy and wish to lead peaceful lives in the privacy of their bosom island to create lei without the modern world butting in.
Maintaining the Purity of the Art Form
Not only do we spend a great deal of time in promotion, we also spend our best efforts and expenses in the pursuit of elevating the craft. We place the utmost emphasis that all laws regarding Ni'ihau lei be followed, while showing people why these laws exist in the first place. That is to see that Ni'ihau artists who are the keepers of this craft be honored and their work sought after for their skills and authenticity.
In 2014, Janelle did a workshop in cooperation with the Ni'ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation with 6 stringers from different Ni'ihau families to discuss and share finishing techniques. This took several months of preparation, 3 formal proposals, and the efforts of a wonderful translator to help conduct the workshop in the native language. In this session we learned so much about pronunciation of shells, correct identification of shell colors, styles that contribute to our written descriptions of each lei.
Our focus on purity is akin to our desire to see lei finished with the proper materials. While that is very much a work in progress, you will see changes happening with our artists over years with loving maintenance. These improvements show in the finishes of most of our lei and are noticed by collectors who have known of this craft since before we were born. We pay homage to the people who have preceded us in this effort, and will continue in good faith to provide our artists with the best line for stringing, gold findings when possible, and a specific jewelry Epoxy for double cowry clasps so that they last lifetimes.
It takes a great deal of work, investment and research to find how best to finish this jewelry and phase out the super glue and base metals that have been the standard for so long. While we still carry some base metal hook and eye, it is because we understand that some stringers only do it one way. It's been great working with different generations to see people slowly embracing that which will make their art last longer. We back up our desire for quality by providing the upfront expense to willing artisans so that it's easier for them to make the transition.