Just how did so foreign an adornment take root in Hawaiian tradition? There are varying stories, but O‘ahu-based jeweler Philip Rickard offers a compelling version. In his book, Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry: A Lasting Remembrance, Rickard traces the tradition to nineteenth-century England. Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, a heartbroken nation, led by Albert’s widow, Queen Victoria, popularized gold enameled “mourning jewelry” to express their anguish.
News of Albert’s death left an impression on the Hawaiian kingdom, which, despite a considerable geographical distance, had formed strong allegiances with Britain. Rickard writes that Hawai‘i’s Lili‘uokalani had several bangles made for herself around the time of Prince Albert’s death, including one that was etched with the words “Hoomanao Mau” (“Lasting Remembrance”).
Rickard theorizes that Lili‘uokalani recognized a kindred spirit in England’s grieving queen. “It is likely Hawaiian mourning jewelry embodied the young chiefess’ own sense of family, which Hawaiian culture shared with Queen Victoria. . . .”
Several commissioned pieces followed, and Lili‘uokalani, who became Hawai‘i’s queen in 1891, eventually began giving the jewelry to relatives and loved ones. One of the first recipients was Zoe Atkinson, a headmistress and socialite who helped plan royal galas for the queen. The chillingly prophetic words “Aloha Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”) — also the title of the Queen’s famous song — were enameled onto the bangle; the inside inscription noted the date: “Liliuokalani Jan. 5 ‘93.” Just twelve days later, the monarchy would be abolished.