The History of Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry

Throughout history, jewelry has been used as a form of self expression to showcase personal style, wealth, social status, and to communicate feelings towards another person. As a result, heirloom jewelry, or pieces passed down through generations, are often the most cherished items given and received. The most treasured type of jewelry in Hawaii is called Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry. While the monetary value of precious metals and stones contributes to the value of these pieces, the family history and emotional nature of them are what make them truly priceless. The very first examples of Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry were gold and enamel bracelets engraved with Hawaiian words and motifs. Over time the materials and forms have evolved, but the engraved patterns of leaves, hibiscus, and plumeria have endured.


Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry is that despite its name, the jewelry style actually originated in England. Before the 1860s, gold and enamel bracelets did not hold a significant meaning. However, their popularity took off in 1861 with the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. The Queen’s grief was so great that she created an entire new set of rules to follow when a loved one died. Known as a “mourning period,” women in particular adhered to both social and clothing related limitations, which even extended to jewelry. Since black was the primary color worn during a mourning period, the gold bracelets with black enamel words were a common choice.

So, how on earth did English mourning jewelry transition into a treasured Hawaiian tradition?

For that explanation, we need to explore the relationship between Hawaii and England. In 1778, a British captain named James Cook became the first westerner to contact Hawaii. From that point on, opportunities for trade, such as sugar farming and whaling, kept the British interested and involved in the tropical islands. In fact, the two countries' relationship was positive enough that when Hawaiian princess Lili’uokalani heard about Prince Albert’s death, she commissioned and wore a golden mourning bracelet too. Little did she know that one seemingly small act would impact Hawaiian culture so strongly.


 (Lili'uokalani became the first Queen of Hawaii in 1891)


Princess Lili’uokalani’s bracelet was made in the English style except for one change. Instead of engraving English words, she chose to engrave the Hawaiian words "Hoomanao Mau," or “lasting remembrance.” The Princess liked the bracelet so much that she started ordering more as gifts, but only for her family and members of the upper class. It took three decades for someone outside of the Hawaiian royalty to receive one of the prized golden bracelets. In 1890, a school headmistress named Zoe Atkinson organized a series of elaborate parties for Lili’uokalani . As a thank you gift, the Princess gave the school headmistress a bracelet engraved with “Aloha Oe” as a thank you gift. Soon, many women on the island wanted a similar bracelet too. However, the jewelry’s expense and rarity kept it out of reach for most. When a woman did manage to purchase or receive one, it was not worn as a sign of mourning, but as a symbol of pride. As the original owners passed away and left the beautiful bracelets to their daughters, the Hawaiian Heirloom was born. To this day, Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry is given as gifts from mothers to daughters on special occasions such as graduations and weddings.


(Kuuipo, which means "Sweetheart" in Hawaiian, is a common word used today)

As the years went by, Hawaiian artisans added more tropical imagery to the engraved designs. The jewelry's shift in purpose towards a symbol of cultural pride, as well as the additions to the engravings, separated the island bracelets from their English counterparts more and more. As a result, even when the English mourning bracelets fell out of style, the Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry market continued to grow. Now, the only noticeable reference to the jewelry’s European beginnings is in the fonts used. Although the words engraved are in Hawaiian, the letters still include elements of an Old English font. In the 1960s, the iconic Hawaiian Heirloom style began to branch out. Today the delicately engraved flowers, leaves, and words are included on rings, earrings, and pendants, as well as on bracelets. Also, instead of gold and enamel as the primary materials, many artisans now use silver and black epoxy because they are more affordable.

(Examples of Modern Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry pendants & earrings) 

Photo of Lili’uokalani at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, By Walery (Stanislaw Julian Ostrorog (1830-90)) - Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PPWD-16-4.014, Public Domain,
Photo of Queen Victoria, By Alexander Bassano - Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287, p. 153., Public Domain,