Museum Mystery: Where Are Queen Kapi‘olani’s Victorian Era Jewels From?

This emerald-and-garnet necklace is fit for a queen. But the story of how it traveled through the hands of as many as three queens (and possibly a czar) has local museum experts hunting through history.
Romancing the stone
The placard simply describes the first of the two necklaces as emeralds, garnets, pearls and enamel in gilded metal rosettes.
Photos: Courtesy of Bishop Museum


Wander through the Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art and several items catch your eye. A military dress uniform embellished with taro leaves woven with gold wire, worn by Kalākaua and his Cabinet on their tour through Europe that is on display for the first time. A series of 1880s photos of pā‘ū riders. Nineteenth-century maple telephones bearing the king’s monogram, and an official list of all telephone subscribers in 1885—people could call up 417 places, including Theo H. Davies (No. 5 on the list); the first newspaper, The Daily Hawaiian Herald (No. 65); or even Lili‘uokalani’s Waikīkī residence (No. 320).


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Among the items celebrating the progressive ideas and proud global Hawaiian identity cultivated under King Kalākaua are a pair of necklaces, collected by Queen Kapi‘olani during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. The placard simply describes the first as emeralds, garnets, pearls and enamel in gilded metal rosettes. The other is denoted as a silver, gold, aquamarine and diamond section bound to a triple-strand of pearls. The pieces are beautiful representations of the intricate designs of the day. Where they came from is a little less clear.


The story you won’t find in the exhibit begins at Bishop Museum. Records there say that the necklaces, on loan to HoMA, were presented to the queen by the exiled empress of France, Eugenie, at Windsor Castle in May of 1887. However, when Bishop Museum ethnology collections manager Alice Christophe took a closer look, she found contradictions. An inventory of Eugenie’s royal jewelry by Christie’s London earlier that year did not include either necklace. Not only that, but records indicate the Hawai‘i delegation did not arrive in England until a few weeks after the gift was reportedly given, and the dignitaries did not go to Windsor.


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Crown Jewels

It could be that Empress Eugenie wasn’t ever planning to sell the necklaces, so they were not in the Christie’s inventory. It could be that she met Kapi‘olani and Lili‘uokalani elsewhere. Another report indicates that there were actually two other royals involved. The document says the emerald-and-garnet design was a “Russian traveling necklace” bought by Eugenie from the czar’s collection, given to Queen Victoria who then gave it to Kapi‘olani.


“People and things were moving, and moving faster at that time,” says Christophe, who traveled to archives in Paris to try to track down the jewelry’s journey. “This story is just a fascinating example of how global connections were established by the ali‘i, and how they have shaped today’s world.”


This continuing mystery and the stories behind the 130 pieces in the current exhibit are all recorded in the book, Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era, on sale at the Honolulu Museum of Art. You can see the exhibit through Jan. 27, 2019. On Friday, Nov. 16, admission will be free in honor of the Merrie Monarch’s birthday.