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ON THE COVER C’est si bon! Halau Mele chanter Marques Hanalei Marzan with Paris’ most famous landmark—la Tour Eiffel—in the background. Photo by Kevin German
Vol.17, no.6
December 2014 / January 2015


The Velvet Touch 
Written By: Katie Young Yamanaka
Photos By: Jack Wolford

Over two decades ago, in the district of Ka‘u on Hawai‘i Island, a few fuzzy gray seeds were placed in the palm of 13-year-old Kristof Baugher with the following advice: “You should plant these.” The seeds young Kristof was given were those of the mgambo tree, a native of East Africa; in Hawaiian the tree’s seeds are known as hua weleweka, or velvet seeds. Baugher did plant the gift he’d received, and eight trees—despite being left untended for years on the family property—grew and thrived. Mgambo trees are celebrated for their signature plush, smoky gray seeds; because it can take ten to twelve years for the trees to even begin producing the seeds, each seed is precious and not one is wasted. They grow cushioned in crimson pods, which split open to reveal them.

Baugher and his partner Cora Marie Andrews now harvest and cure several thousand hua weleweka seeds every year. It’s an intensive process that takes at least a year and sometimes two to complete, but once cured the seeds are rock-hard; far from fragile, they nonetheless maintain their soft, velvety texture. They are sorted for quality—just like pearls—and then prepped for use in the pair’s jewelry line; Baugher drills each seed himself by hand.

With the soft orbs as their inspiration, the pair designs necklaces, earrings and bracelets, all of which combine the seeds with gemstones, crystals and precious metals. For their Hawaiiana line, Baugher scours Hilo Bay for sea glass and seeks out other unique seeds, including areca palm and maunaloa seeds. Even sea urchin spines and Hawai‘i Island sandalwood have made their way into some Velvet Jewelry creations. You can find the pair every Wednesday and Saturday at the Hilo Farmers Market, usually with four to five hundred pieces of their work on display. “There is a whole different element to jewelry when you add a textural quality to a bead,” says Baugher. “They feel great.”