Aloha! Modern Silver readers.  For most of the past year I have had the good fortune to live in Hawaii. Yes, people not only vacation in our 50th state but they actually live there. I can tell you from first hand observations that residents of Hawaii design, manufacture, wear, buy, sell and collect jewelry of all types. There is much more to the jewelry of Hawaii than just the floral lei your travel guide plops around your neck when you arrive. 



The Hawaiian Islands were populated by people who migrated from the Marquesas in the 4th or 5th century. As with other ancient peoples they adorned themselves with items they found.

Lei Niho Palaoa, Ivory & Human Hair Ornament Necklace

This hook-shaped, whale-ivory ornament with a necklace of human hair was worn by the ali'i as a symbol of rank and authority. A few of the human hair strands in the lei have broken, and the necklace bundle has been wrapped with black thread. The ornament pictured here is 41/2 inches long. Early ornaments were usually smaller, but with the whalers' ability to supply ivory in quantity the ornaments became larger and were highly desired by the newcomers. They were made in great numbers for trade, as they were a unique representation of Hawaiian art.

Photo from the book Na Mea Makamae used with permission from the author David Young

 Their baubles were constructed of shells, seeds, coral, feathers, teeth, hair, bark, bone and whale ivory. They used design patterns such as sea turtles, fish and canoes which reflected an isolated island life.

Both men and women wore necklaces, wrist bracelets, and ankle decorations.  One of the most sought after kinds of jewelry, then and now, is a hook-shaped necklace , lei niho palaoa, which was crafted from whale teeth and human hair and usually only worn by royalty, ali'i.



Also from the past are items fashioned as exact copies or as adaptations of petroglyphs found on the islands. These artifacts and early art work form the underpinning and inspiration for much of the jewelry being produced and worn today. The natural primitive look with its bold lines has obviously been around a long time and remains popular and stylish.

Another jewelry category from the past but still produced, worn and collected is Ni'ihau shell jewelry.

About seventeen miles southwest of the island of Kaua'i is the island of Ni'ihau. Unlike the other Hawaiian Islands it is a very dry place and the only "flowers" on this island are its shells. 

Although Ni'ihau shells are found on some of the other Hawaiian Islands the ones on Ni'ihau are more plentiful and of a much higher quality


Ni'ihau shell leis cascading from a traditional Hawaiian calabash.

 Photo from the book Ni'ihau Shell Leis, used with permission from the author Linda Moriarty

Archaeologists have discovered that the shells have been used in jewelry for hundreds of years. In 1778 Captain Cook described shell work that researchers believe to have been made of Ni'ihau shells.

The shells are very tiny, about 1/3 of an inch and come in various shades of whites, yellows, browns and reds. Collecting them from the beach is difficult. According to researcher and author, Linda Moriarty, on an average day a worker can only gather enough shells to fill an empty baby food jar.

The shells are dried and sorted by size, type (there are three species of shells usually used in jewelry) and color. Next, each shell is cleaned to remove all particles of sand. Then using a steel awl a hole is pierced in each shell so it may be strung on nylon thread. Many more shells are needed than are actually used because about one out of three shells crack when the hole is made. Stringing such small shells is tedious and currently there are only a few workers on the island producing the leis. Sometimes earrings and bracelets are made to match the necklace.


3 strand 50 inch Ni'ihau shell lei. Photo from the book Ni'ihau Shell Leis

used with permission from the author Linda Moriarty.

 A wedding lei is about 50 inches long but shorter leis of various lengths are also assembled. The styles vary from the very simple, using one nylon thread, to the very complex and intricate which use many strands and are twisted into various patterns. The species of shell and the pattern used determine the finished look. When a strand has the desired number of shells on it a puka shell is strung onto each end. Lastly a cowry shell of a complementary color finishes the strand by holding both ends together inside of it.

Well done pieces are expensive. Earrings and choker or short necklaces are several hundred dollars but a long lei is more costly. I recently saw one for $1400. The pattern, shell species, color and length determine the price. 

The articles are available throughout the islands in some jewelry and antique and collectibles stores. Keep in mind that the state is a major tourist destination and you should buy from a reputable dealer who will authenticate, in writing, your purchase as being genuine Ni'ihau shell jewelry.

To learn more see, Moriarty, Linda Paik, Ni'ihau Shell Leis, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1986, and Young, David, Na Mea Makamae, Hawaiian Treasures, Palapala Press, Kailua-Kona, 1999

One more type of Hawaiian jewelry grounded in history and still very popular today is Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry. Beginning in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s Europeans sailed into the Hawaiian waters. The isolated lifestyle ended. Sailors introduced innovative tools and new materials. Many native rituals and customs were abandoned and new ideas and fashions were readily adopted as the ways of other nations, especially England, were emulated.

Two typical pieces of Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry, 14K gold.
 Courtesy of Carats & Karats, Honolulu.

A stunning example of this was Hawaii's future queen, Princess Lili'uokalani, who was born in 1838. The princess was raised and educated by missionaries in a Victorian western style. The ties between England and Hawaii had grown strong. In addition to being fiercely loyal to her Hawaiian traditions the princess greatly admired Queen Victoria and was enamored of all things English.
In 1861 Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert died. Philip Rickard, author and Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry researcher, notes that shortly after Albert's death Princess Lili'uokalani commissioned mourning jewelry for herself. The pieces were made to her exact specifications. 

They embodied both her feelings of sympathy for the queen, her own loyal feelings about Hawaii and her duty as royalty. The bracelets she ordered feature an intermingling of both the black enamel used in English mourning items and the feather capes which are the symbols of Hawaiian royalty. This combination of English and Hawaiian styles crafted in gold with engraving and enamel work done in English script forms the basis for Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry. 

Over the years Lili'uokalani added to her pieces and her collection grew. Portraits of her after 1862 show her wearing this genre of jewelry. 

When Queen Victoria's son Alfred visited Hawaii in 1869 he gave Lili'uokalani a gold anchor link bracelet which she then wore alongside the engraved bangles.

The princess added still another kind of English jewelry to her collection when her father died. She ordered a Victorian style hair bracelet to wear as mourning jewelry. 

In 1891 following the unexpected death of her brother who was the king, Princess Lili'uokalani became the queen and was the last ruling monarch of Hawaii. If there was any question as to her influence upon jewelry style before her reign it was certainly assured once she took the throne. Her subjects widely mimicked her preference for English style adornment then, and now, her subjects' descendants still favor the same style.

Spend even a short time in Hawaii and you will immediately realize that the style the Queen adored, now known as Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry, certainly does live on. People in Hawaii commemorate life's milestones with this jewelry. Births, graduations, birthdays, retirements and weddings are celebrated with the gift of jewelry. This gift is often a bangle bracelet. 

It is hard not to notice that people in Hawaii wear multiples. That is an understatement. Women are bedecked from wrist to elbow with their bangles. Stop one of these fancy-armed wahine (women) and ask, "Why do you wear so many bracelets?" or "What do they mean?" and you are in for an hour of excitedly told family history. Since "hang loose" life style means taking it easy and not rushing to the next activity be prepared to hear the story behind each name or word engraved on every single bracelet!

Most people choose yellow gold but increasingly especially among young buyers sterling silver is becoming popular. The enamel work is still usually done in black but a variety of other colors are gaining favor. The genre is also produced and worn in other forms besides the bangle. Earrings, rings, anklets and pendants as well as special pieces for children and men are common.

First names are the most often used word enameled on the bracelets. Mothers wear bracelets bearing their children's names and when the child grows up and gets married the bracelet is frequently bestowed upon the namesake. There are many other enameled messages and another very popular word is kuuipo, which translates as sweetheart.

Imitation must surely be the greatest form of flattery as you can purchase Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry everywhere from an outdoor swap meet to a high-end jewelry store. The prices vary and depend upon the material and the workmanship. Compare prices and quality before you buy and use a reputable dealer.

To learn more see, Rickard, Philip, Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry, A Lasting Remembrance, Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry Press, Honolulu, 1993 

Jewelry sold by Gump's and Ming's is another category from the past, which plays a role in today's jewelry of Hawaii. Collectors avidly seek out vintage pieces made by both companies. Dealers and their customers feel the workmanship is excellent and the knowledgeable can recognize the pieces.

 The favorite Hawaiian motifs are done in sterling or sterling embellished with carved ivory. Classic depictions of the islands' flowers such as anthurium, hibiscus, birds of paradise, orchids and pikake are rendered in brooches, necklaces, earrings and rings.

Ming's anthurium pin and earrings set
 courtesy of Joanne Valentine

Ming's was first listed in the 1940-41 Directory of the City and County of Honolulu. There were Ming's stores on the mainland and goods were also sold through catalogues. Ming's last retail site, the one in Honolulu closed in October of 1999. Many of the pieces were designed by Wook Moon and most examples are signed "Ming's."

Cini breadfruit brooch

 courtesy of Joanne Valentine

Gump's originated in California but sold a lot of merchandise in their Honolulu store from 1929 to 1950. Many of their most valuable pieces were designed by Guglielmo Cini. Cini's Hawaiian articles that are the best known are his tropical floral motifs fashioned in unadorned sterling silver.


Cini rose parure

courtesy of Joanne Valentine

In Hawaii, pieces from both companies have become family treasures and are handed down from generation to generation. Daughters seek items similar to those worn by their mothers and shoppers at shows will stop at a booth and become nostalgic if they spot a necklace like the one grandma wore.

 The articles are costly. Brooches can be priced from about $200 to $600 and some complete sets can be close to $2000. Keep your eyes open for both Ming's and Gump's vintage creations.

The contemporary jewelry of Hawaii is greatly influenced by the island's exotic beauty and culture. Even high-end firms bearing well-known mainland and worldwide names carry goods specific for the Hawaiian market. There are many more items of pearl, jade, and coral for sale. The motifs and colors are those of a warm climate. Surfing, ocean and sea life designs such as fish and shells are plentiful.

Some other images not regularly stocked and sold in mainland stores but prominent in Hawaii are pineapples, palm trees, hibiscus and plumeria blooms, ships, volcanoes and ukuleles. 

Manufacturers and retailers based in Hawaii also offer unique wares. Last July the artisans of Ulana O Kukui created wedding bands resembling native foliage in a textured plaited design. They transformed the wedding band from a simple stock item into a Hawaiian keepsake. As an indication of how popular the Hawaiian touch is the rings sold out at some stores. 

From the Honolulu Advertiser, July 24, 2001

Department stores as well as specialty boutiques offer a wide range of Hawaiian theme pieces in various price ranges and materials.

Male paddler, pendant or charm of 14k gold by Gordon the Jeweler

The smaller independent jewelry stores also have their way of saying, " we are doing business in Hawaii." On the Big Island of Hawaii I met Gordon Hunter Kahuiokalani Poire, JR, or "Gordon the Jeweler" for short. He is a gifted family jeweler repairing charm bracelets and designing pendants to help his clients commemorate personal events. He also creates some very unusual pieces that call out like a gentle tropical breeze, "we are from Hawaii."

Female paddler, pendant or charm of 14k gold and diamond by Gordon the Jeweler 

His delicate gold and diamond interpretations of Hawaiian musical instruments and people paddling canoes could only come from our Paradise in the Pacific. On all the major Hawaiian Islands there are talented artisans like Gordon interpreting the tropical milieu in jewelry. The boutiques, galleries and shops are bursting with "Hawaiian" merchandise.

Advertising card for "The Paddlers" by Gordon the Jeweler who lives and works on the Big Island of Hawaii. The pieces were originally part of a fund raiser for canoe paddlers.

Bracelet of 14k gold and diamonds depicting Hawaiian musical instruments by Gordon the Jeweler

The author kept her bathing suit packed and chose to spend time in jewelry stores learning about The Jewelry of Hawaii. Gordon the Jeweler was one of several jewelers who was helpful.

 Hawaiian free form bangle bracelet with, orchids, donated and won as a door prize at a fundraiser for a hula school, by Gordon the Jeweler.

Both the consumer and artistic communities are very in-tune with the world of jewelry. Almost every week there is an article about jewelry in the mainstream newspapers or on television. Sometimes local artisans or events are featured. An article such as one highlighting three women who produce jewelry from pearl and mother of pearl is typical. The local tropical flavor blends with international fads and fashions which streak across the Pacific Ocean from Europe, the mainland, and Asia keeping Hawaii's contemporary jewelry scene on the cutting edge. 

Jewelry gets lots of press in Hawaii and barely a week goes by without some mention of jewelry. This article, "Gifts from the sea" is typical and appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser, August 7, 2001


Not planning a trip to Hawaii? You can still find lots of Hawaiian jewelry. Look for it online, at antique shows and in mainland shops, especially those located near surfing and seaside communities such as in California and New Jersey.

Planning a trip to Hawaii? I have not discussed all the types of jewelry found and made in Hawaii. However, when you are finished sightseeing and want to shop you now have some information to get you started. Remember to comparison shop and go to well established sellers if you want quality items and not tourist trinkets. The world comes to Hawaii to relax and shop so whether you are looking for collectible vintage, historic Hawaiian, or shiny new jewelry do take your time and select wisely. And oh yes, remember to savor your fragrant welcoming lei and view it as just the beginning, an invitation, to experience and enjoy the jewelry of Hawaii.


Here are the names of some dealers and places to shop. There are MANY, MANY others. Attend any Antiques & Collectibles shows that may be happening during your visit.

Joanne Valentine - Ming's, Gump's and vintage costume jewelry
some items displayed at: 
Antique Alley
1347 Kapiolani Blvd.
Honolulu, Hawaii

Mellow's - Fine, Antique & Estate Jewelry
Davies Pacific Center Suite #156
841 Bishop Street
Honolulu, Hawaii
Mon. - Fri. 10-5

Philip Rickard -Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry
Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry
Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center
2301 Kalakaua Avenue #C -306
Honolulu, Hawaii

Carats and Karats - Fine jewelry, custom designs, appraisals
Brenda Reichel, G.G.
1254 S. King Street
Honolulu, Hawaii
Toll Free 1-877-593-8122

Gordon The Jeweler - Fine jewelry, custom designs
74-5589 Alapa STREET
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

The Denny Wong Jewelry Collection - Fine jewelry/Hawaiian designs
Available in jewelry stores at major shopping centers on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii


Sheryl Gross Shatz is a Certified Gemologist, S.C.C., author of What's It Made Of? A Jewelry Materials Identification Guide, and can be contacted at

Web design by Marbeth Schon
 Copyright   Modern Silver magazine 2002

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