1998 Bands of Gold

Tuesday, May 12, 1998

Photo Composite by Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin


Bands of Gold

Hawaiian heirloom jewelry
is a gift-giving phenomenon

By Betty Shimabukuro


A world of possibilities

If you're in the market for a bracelet, you've got a lot of decisions to make. Here are a few. This sampling of the different bracelet styles is from Violet's Fine Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry.Border designs come in plain, diamond-cut, rope, scalloped, even bamboo. In another style, the edges are cut out.

Lettering is traditionally black, but can be done in a range of colors, or raised in gold. Color costs about $20 more. Calligraphy adds $40-$60 per character.

Inset items can include hearts, precious stones, the Hawaiian coat-of-arms, even service pins.

Engraved patterns come in a wide range of designs, including many tropical flowers, maile and bamboo. Special designs such as turtles, even Winnie-the-Pooh are possible, too. The most popular, though, is the plumeria.

The Ming-style bracelet is cut out in the Chinese style. The one above goes for about $600.

Charlene Langley's eight bands of gold may add several thousand dollars to the value of her forearms, but more important is their value in sentiment.

Langley bought her first Hawaiian heirloom bracelet nine years ago, after the death of her first husband. It bears his name and the names of their sons, and she is rarely without it.

"Hoomanao Mau," Queen Liliuokalani would have called it -- "Lasting Remembrance" -- the words she had engraved on her own gold bracelet 136 years ago.

Through time this singular style of gold jewelry, with its black enameled letters and engraved scrollwork, has gone from a queen's special order to a fiercely competitive industry involving literally thousands of local jewelers.

Designer Steven Lee figures he's sold about 250,000 pieces from his Island Heirloom Collection in 15 years. "Nothing else comes to within 10 percent of that," Lee says.

"In a state where there are only 600,000 females, that's just staggering."

But why?

"It's a wonderful representation of Hawaii's romantic history," says Tom Wheeler, president of the Hawaii Jewelers' Association.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Charlene Langley wears her Hawaiian heirloom bracelets
just about all the time -- even when she's doing yard work.

"Queen Liliuokalani and her enchantment with it is all expressed, and that's what makes it special."Not that most people who buy Hawaiian jewelry today know much about its history.

The bracelets, pendants, earrings and rings are purchased to mark special occasions, cement engagements, commemorate the birth of children -- and often just for fun..

This time of year is especially busy, with graduation season coming on the heels of Mother's Day. Many a young woman will get her first gold bracelet in the next few weeks, along with her high school diploma.

Pat Breeden, a vice president at Royal Hawaiian Heritage Jewelers, estimates the chain's 11 stores will sell 1,000 bracelets this season.

"It's a very good time."

Langley, a medical receptionist at the Kaiser Permanente clinic in Kapolei, has a different story for each of her bracelets. Two are dedicated to her sons, to be passed on to granddaughters not yet born ("I keep reminding them they don't get anything unless they have daughters," she says).

Another bears the name of a niece, to be given to her once she turns 16. Yet another was a gift from her second husband and on the inside bears her wedding date. She admits consulting it to remember her anniversary.

Langley calls her latest piece her "Vegas bracelet." The 40-millimeter piece -- about 11/2 inches wide -- cost more than $1,000 and is engraved with a turtle, bamboo branches and a maneki neko, or lucky cat. For Mother's Day she was in Las Vegas hoping the triple symbolism would bring her luck.

Most graduation bracelets will be much less extravagant, probably in the $250 to $300 range. The typical choice will be an 8-millimeter bracelet with a plumeria design and black-enamel letters spelling out a Hawaiian name, says Sheldon Chee, owner of Violet's Fine Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry, a 25-year-old family business with a single store on North King Street.

"The black-and-gold combination is what people can tell from a distance is Hawaiian," Chee says.

But there are countless other choices, often leaving the first-time buyer lost in a big-ticket world with a dizzying set of options.

After specifying size and thickness, you'll need to choose letter styles, finishes, borders. The scrollwork -- the hand-engraved work that circles the non-lettered part of the bracelet -- comes in a variety of island flowers, maile, bamboo and any manner of custom designs.

Couples need to decide if they want both names on her bracelet.

"Although we have people who bring the jewelry back to have a name removed or changed," Chee says. "So it's not always permanent."

Whatever the choice, "buyer beware" is the operative phrase.

Jo Ann Uchida, executive director of the state's Office of Consumer Protection, says the industry has grown far more competitive in the last few years. This has meant lower prices and more design choices for consumers, but also an increase in complaints filed with Uchida's office, mainly about non-delivery.

The problem, she says, is fly-by-night retailers who undercut prices only to find they can't deliver, and may even go out of business. "A lot of consumer deposits are lost."

Her advice is to choose a reputable retailer -- "there's something to be said for longevity" -- and get everything in writing before putting any money down.

Breeden at Royal Hawaiian Heritage says you can safely buy jewelry from discount stores, if you really don't have a lot to spend. The difference will be in the distinctiveness of the piece.

Plus, will the retailer stand behind a guarantee? "The biggest thing," Breeden says, "is do you know where to go to find this person when the enamel comes out?"

Shop wisely, though, and you'll have a solid-gold piece of jewelry that is almost completely hand-made, and uniquely Hawaiian.

"You can't go to any state in the United States and get really fine quality engraved jewelry," says Michael Parker, who owns two jewelry stores in Pearlridge. "This is the last of it."

Not something you have to tell Charlene Langley. Her bracelets are virtually a part of her. She takes them off only to sleep, and then only because the air-

conditioning in her bedroom turns them ice cold. "In the middle of the night my husband would scream because the bracelets would touch him."

She often sets off airport security alarms because she's packing so much metal.

But she remains attached, not just for sentimental reasons, but because these bracelets have come to represent good fortune.

"My husband says, 'Why do you have to wear them all the time?' and I say, 'Because this is our luck.' "

Ready to buy?

Learn the lingo and protect yourself

The purchase of Hawaiian heirloom jewelry can be an expensive foray into a 14-karat world measured in millimeters and marked by a bewildering array of choices. Jewelers and consumer advocates say a little pre-knowledge goes a long way:Bullet All that glitters: Sources of gold being strictly controlled, you can be fairly sure you are getting real gold, even if you're buying at a swap meet. Look for the 14K stamp, though, and be sure you aren't getting lesser quality 10K gold.

Bullet Know your mms: Many advertised specials will list only the width of a piece. Ask about thickness; only then can you make a true price comparison. It's all measured in millimeters. A bracelet that is only 1.2 mm thick has less gold, strength and value than one that's 1.5 mm.

Bullet Light, medium, heavy? Some jewelers will use these terms, but there is no industry standard for their meaning. Again, ask for thickness in millimeters.

Bullet Letters that last: Enameling can be either glass or a rubber-like epoxy. Jewelers are divided about which is best. Both are subject to damage, however, so find out what your jeweler's guarantee covers.

Bullet Stamp of quality: Next to the 14K stamp, look for the trademark of the manufacturer, so if your enamel chips in 10 years and you can't remember who made the bracelet, the TM will lead you to the source.

Bullet Get it in writing: Your invoice should clearly state the size and weight of the piece, type of scrollwork and enameling, the exact words you want engraved, etc. If delivery date is critical, determine -- in writing -- what your recourse is if it's late.

Bullet Charge it: Put any deposit on a credit card, so if you don't get your piece you have remedies under the Credit Billing Act.

Bullet Check 'em out: Especially if their prices are much lower than anyone else's. Call the state Office of Consumer Protection, 586-2630, or the Better Business Bureau, 536-6956, to learn of any complaints filed against the jeweler. Membership in the Hawaii Jewelers' Association is also a good mark.

Bullet And if you're not happy: Report problems to the consumer advocates above. They can often negotiate a solution.

Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry Press
Liliuokalani's gold engraved bracelet dates to 1862.

So what’s Hawaiian
about old-English letters
on gold?

The history of Hawaiian heirloom jewelry begins a world away, in England, with the death of a prince.Phillip Rickard, in his book, "Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry" (Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry Press, 1993), recounts this history:

Gold jewelry adorned with black enamel was already traditional in England when Queen Victoria turned it into "mourning jewelry" after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861.

In Hawaii, the twentysomething High Chiefess Liliu, perhaps empathizing with the widow Victoria, took a liking to the jewelry style and had several bracelets made for herself.

One was engraved with "Hoomanao Mau" ("Lasting Remembrance"); another, "R. Naiu" ("Royalty, the Lofty Ones"), carved out in Victorian-style lettering, flanked by black-enamel chevrons and fleur-de-lis, English symbols of royalty.

The bracelets appear in photographs of Liliu -- who became Queen Liliuokalani -- from 1862 on.

Thirty years later, after the overthrow, the jewelry became a politically powered fashion statement, a "lasting remembrance" of the monarchy. A trend was born.

Through the years local artisans have popularized patterns that give the jewelry a decidedly island look, far removed from its staid English beginnings. The old-English lettering, however, remains traditional.

--Betty Shimabukuro, Star-Bulletin