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Vol. 16, no. 1
February/March 2013


Torch Song 

Story by Deborah Boehm
Photos by Dana Edmunds

If a butterfly flaps
its wings in Peking, they say, it just might set off an earthquake in Peru. This fashion corollary is certifiably true: When a Hollywood diva struts her stuff on Melrose Avenue or Rodeo Drive, a single photograph can spark a seismic event in sales of whatever she is wearing. That’s exactly what happened in April 2005, after People magazine named the kukui nut lei its “Accessory of the Week.” The decorative nuts of the Hawai‘i state tree were also showcased that spring in US (where the headline was “Bohemian Must-Haves”), Allure, Elle, Lucky and Teen Vogue among others, but it was the spread in People—circulation: four million—that lit the fateful fuse.

Within hours, fashion mavens in gotta-have-it now mode were madly Googling “kukui + jewelry.” The resulting online feeding frenzy caused the web site of Honolulu’s Hula Supply Center to crash several times, to the surprise of proprietors Sylvia and Michael Kop. Meanwhile hundreds of new kukui merchants and thousands of eager buyers invaded eBay, quickly propelling the nuts onto the “Hot Sellers’” list. Before long kukui nut accessories were flying off the shelves in actual stores all over the world as well— mainly chokers and long necklaces but also bracelets and earrings. Milo Tesoro Boutique owner Elaine Yeow reported from Melbourne, Australia, that the necklaces she hastily bulk-ordered on eBay in May 2005 sold “like hotcakes.” In the Land Down Under, and everywhere else, the most popular kukui colors were black, brown and cream, followed by high-gloss painted nuts in anime-bright hues. It wasn’t long before an A-to-W spectrum of chain stores—Anthropologie, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Target, Walmart—had hopped aboard the nut train.

Surprisingly, in that year of bohemian rhapsodies, kukui nuts never made it onto Fashion Week runways though they did turn up in Vogue. Brooke Magnaghi, then accessories and jewelry director at W magazine, says she just thought of them as fun, seasonal “street jewelry.” That perception is borne out by a contemporaneous New York Times article that surveyed Manhattan’s clothing-stall vendors and made wry mention of “kukui beads, the walnut-sized hippie chic answer to dowager pearls.”

How big was the kukui-quake of ought-five? Huge. Ginormous. 8.5 on the Richter scale. Myriad Internet message boards were abuzz with twenty-four/seven kukui chatter, and at the artistic UK site polyvore.com, where amateur stylists assemble fantasy outfits, there were nearly eight hundred ensembles designed around a kukui lei. An article in Hawaii Business noted that Hilo Hattie’s Mainland stores had registered a 50 percent increase in sales of kukui items, while the Los Angeles Business Journal declared that the market for “clunky necklaces,” including kukui, “isn’t going away anytime soon.” Indeed, a late December issue of People magazine crowned kukui nut jewelry one of its “Obsessions of the Year” along with iPods and self-tanning.    

Curiously the “nutterfly effect” seems to have precipitated a mere tremor in the Islands. “I knew about the craze only because my sister lives in New York, and all of a sudden she was talking about how everyone [there] was wearing them,” says Nadine Kam, then the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s style editor. “She wanted my mom to send her a bunch of bracelets and necklaces.”

Kukui coveters who didn’t have indulgent relatives in Hawai‘i could choose among hundreds of online merchants, and although there was some opportunistic price-gouging, the average tab for a thirty-two-inch lei hovered in the $7 to $24 range. For serious spenders, Neiman Marcus conjured up “polished, lacquered metallic and silver and over-dyed kukui beads in brown, bronze, golden, pewter, pink and taupe–made in Italy”: a strangely gorgeous exercise in lily-gilding that sold for $475 a strand (marked down to $118 after the kukui fad jumped the shark.)