It’s a treasured keepsake that is given from parent to child, friend to friend, sweetheart to sweetheart. And more than anything else, it’s a lasting gift that is unique to Hawaii.
The origins of Hawaiian heirloom jewelry can be traced to the days of the Hawaiian monarchy. In February 1862, the sailing ship Comet arrived in Hawaii with sad news: Prince Albert, consort and husband to England’s Queen Victoria, was dead. Soon after, jewelry accented with black jet or enamel and carved with floral, vine or scroll designs became the height of fashion in England. (During the queen’s time of grief, only mourning clothes and black-accented jewelry were acceptable apparel at the royal court.) These pieces came in the forms of rings, broaches, pendants, and bracelets.
The Hawaiian kingdom had long enjoyed a favorable relationship with England. Reacting to Prince Albert’s death, a 23-year-old Hawaiian princess named Liliu Loloku Walania Kamakaeha ordered gold jewelry that precisely followed the style and detail of the black-enameled English mourning jewelry. Liliu went on to become Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last reigning queen.
Engraved jewelry in the Islands grew in popularity in 1893 after Liliuokalani presented a gold enameled bracelet to Zoe Atkinson, the headmistress at Pohukaina Girls School. The inscription on the bracelet read “Aloha Oe” (“Farewell to thee”) and “Liliuokalani Jan. 5, 1893.” The inscription proved to be prophetic: Just days later, the queen was forced to abdicate her thrown and the Hawaiian Monarchy had come to a sudden end.
Atkinson, who was an active socialite, became the envy of many young ladies, who then asked their mothers for engraved bracelets of their own. The “Aloha Oe” bracelet is on display at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
Today, Hawaiian heirloom jewelry includes earrings, ankle bracelets, and watches as well as rings, pendants, and bracelets. They are usually adorned with favorite Hawaiian motifs. Prices depend on the karat, thickness and width of the gold; the price of gold; and the intricacy of the engraved design.
Hawaiian heirloom jewelry remains an enduring—and endearing—the symbol of Hawaii’s monarchy period.