Shell Lei to Koa Wood – Hawaii’s Decorative Treasures

Shell Lei

It’s no wonder that an archipelago known for some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and lush landscapes would also produce some of the most stunning pieces of jewelry for men and women. Island-style jewelry is fun to shop for and serves as a great gift for loved ones back home. Here are a few of the most common items and styles you’ll find across the state.


Shell lei are a staple of Hawaiian jewelry. The most coveted are crafted with shells from the Forbidden Island of Ni‘ihau that can cost thousands of dollars. More affordable shell lei can be found in local markets. Aside from lei, shells are incorporated into many different types of jewelry. Some Island crafters create earrings, while others might use gold or silver wire to turn a shell into a ring.


Honolulu’s famous Pearl Harbor was once known as Wai Momi or “Waters of Pearl,” to Hawaiians. Before becoming the site of a U.S. Navy Base, the waters around Pearl Harbor were full of oysters that held pearls, which are formed after a piece of sand, or another foreign object, is lodged inside the oyster. Today Pearl Harbor is no longer a pearl haven but jewelers in Hawai‘i still make use of pearls (usually imported black Tahitian), whether as earrings, bracelets or necklaces.


Gold heirloom jewelry is common in Hawai‘i. You may see women wearing these bracelets, rings, or pendants, decorated with phrases or their children’s names in black lettering. This tradition started in Europe when Queen Victoria went into mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. She set the trend of wearing the gold jewelry, which Hawaiian royalty adopted in sympathy of their loved ones. Now the jewels are commonplace on all Islands and are often given as gifts to commemorate momentous occasions.


Koa wood is a valuable hardwood used to make furniture, canoes, paddle and ‘ukulele. It’s also used to carve pieces of jewelry, such as a traditional fishhook pendant necklace. Before contact with Europeans, fishing was a means of finding food, and fishhooks have come to symbolize prosperity and luck. Men are more likely to wear these pendants.



Photos from top to bottom by HIPHO, silvae, Lehua Jewelers and Joshua Rainey Photography.


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