Issue 7.6: December 2004/January 2005

Treasure Islands

photos by Rae Huo
text by Liza Simon

In the beginning, there was the palaoa, a whale’s tooth hung on a necklace of woven hair, an amulet reserved for the alii. The palaoa set the course for Island-style adornment: Hawaii’s earliest artists used material formed in nature’s incubator—shell, bone, coral, feathers, fiber—to craft their jewelry. With new immigrants to the Islands came new materials—jade, gold, pearls, glass, silver—and new aesthetics born from different cultural impulses. But the newcomers, too, ultimately bowed to tropical color and form: the waxy geometry of sunburst heliconia, the kaleidoscopic hues of an inshore reef.

Today, artisans throughout the Islands channel a spirit of place. Some are fine artists, some hearken to craft traditions, but all have mastered the art of making small creations into talismans that connect our Islands to admiring eyes from around the world. On these pages, meet six Hawaii jewelers: a bone carver, two beading wonders, a pearl artist, a trash transformer, a seashell queen and a gold star. Their body adornments appeal to vastly different audiences—but whether a piece is an artifact of Polynesian tradition or an ingenious comment on contemporary living, such portable badges of Island sensibility have a way of drawing the jeweler and wearer into the same inspired fold.

Many of Donna's designs,
including the black opal
brooch/pendant above, can
be found at 
Maui Divers; for
her other work, contact her

Donna Shimazu is an expert goldsmith who has brought the Midas Touch to Hawaii’s flora and fauna. Diamonds, pearls and coral accent her pieces—many of which she creates for Maui Divers—but the real luster in her work comes from her aesthetic precision and her ability to craft precious metals into work that is pure gold.

HH: What rules do you make for yourself as a jewelry designer?

DS: Comfort is essential. If you have to hold your neck in an awkward position to wear a necklace, then it’s probably a piece of sculpture rather than jewelry.

How does Hawaii influence you?

The structure of plants and flowers, the exotic beauty of sea life: These motifs are in my work. I also draw inspiration from my Japanese heritage. I collect books on netsuke, ojime, lacquer ware, armor and textiles to use as references.

Any favorite customer stories?

As long as I make someone happy with a piece, then it’s a good story. Oh, but there are special moments: When my friend’s babies were born, I made them silver baby spoons. We joked that they had to be born with silver spoons in their mouths. 

Sharon Leton shows her work
at Ola's Gallery in Hanalei
(808) 826-6937. She can be
reached at (808) 821-1273 or

Sharon Leton has transformed the sunrise shell—so named for its shading of mauve to gold—into a tropical crown jewel. Her exquisite jewelry is like a DNA helix of Kauai’s beauty, encoding the island’s land and sea into the tiniest subtleties of color and form.

HH: You made sunrise shells such an in thing that movie stars were at your door looking for them. What’s so appealing about them?

SL: The shell says something profound about the earth and its abundance. The moon and the movement of the tides determine just when and where you’ll find it. To be able to collect the shells, you have to be in tune with this. Plus, shells are porous and soft so they absorb all the energy of the years it takes to make them and all the mana of anyone who wears them.

If you could put one of your pieces on a famous person at any time in history, who would it be?

Coco Chanel! She’d get what I was doing. It’s like her faux jewelry of art deco days. Its value is nebulous. It comes from the sense of beauty it gives to the woman who wears it.

Charlene Tashima and Joel Park  show
their work at the Gallery at Ward
Centre in Honolulu: (808-597-8034)

Charlene Tashima and Joel Park are Honolulu’s leading makers of contemporary beads: She transforms molten glass into zanily textured totems of a post-modern imagination, while he ekes out classic lines that would befit a Grecian urn.

HH: How did you become bead-makers?

CT: As a gallery owner, I bought beads. Then I found out you could make them.

JP: As an electrician, I already knew metal so it wasn’t a stretch to work with glass. My worst fear was becoming a "Beadie" (laughter).

A Beadie?

JP: A bead person. You can tell them a mile away by the attention they give to accessories and color. Charlene was wearing daisy-print socks the day we met.

Do your Island roots influence your work?

CT: I would go to the Buddhist church with my grandmother and listen to the Sutras with prayer beads in my hands. There was this one bead, clear in the middle with a figurine of the Buddha inside. It interested me to think something so small could have passed through so many hands.

If you could be any jewelry material, what would you be?

JP: An opal, with all its fire.

CT: The entire glass bead renaissance.

Ira Ono's work is on display
at Volcano Garden Arts on
the Big Island; visit or
call (808) 985-8979
Performance artist Ira Ono doesn’t just talk trash, he transforms it—into flamboyant one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces, which have, in turn, exerted a transformative effect on his life: One moment he was barely getting by as an avante-gardist in Volcano Village; next thing you know, he had begun to morph miscellany into earrings and brooches and gain kudos from a corps of art critics.

HH: If your jewelry could talk, what would it say?

IO: "I’ve been rescued! Thanks for bringing out the beauty in me."

Is transformation the joy of your jewelry?

Very definitely! Once you put on one of my pieces, everything changes. It’s "instant party." People want to know, "Where did that come from?"

How does your work reflect Hawaii?

People give me things to work with—things that have no meaning to anyone but them. I’ve been asked to make pieces out of an old love letter, out of baby teeth. This is part of our way of life on an island: Nothing is disposable.

If you could be a found object, what would you be?

A bottle cap. Anywhere you go, people recognize it and have a use for it.

Contact Janine Spalding through
or at (808) 265-2977 

Janine Spalding creates pearly baubles, whether it’s art deco-ish Tahitian black pearl lariats or kitschy leather flower chokers dappled with freshwater pearls. A self-confessed fashionista who tracks how pop stars accessorize, she also takes style cues from Island surroundings and once made elaborate twenty-strand pearl lei for a group of local aunties.

HH: Why pearls?

JS: Pearls are very emotional in their appeal. They used to be considered elitist in the way a necklace could be passed down in wealthy families for generations. But I’m from Trinidad, and I never experienced this. I like the idea that as elegant as pearls are, they’ve now become so accessible.

Why is that?

New pearl culturing technology, especially in China, is producing every imaginable size, shape, color and luster.

Where would you like to go with this?

So many mentors have given to me—like Aunty Mihana Souza, who asked me do to the pearl version of her trademark Puamana shell lei. I want to give back. One day I’d like to teach pearl jewelry-making at a women’s shelter or an elder-care home. Once you feel the mana of the pearls, it’s very rewarding.

Ammon Watene can be
reached at (808) 291-3429
New Zealand-born Ammon Watene was once a member of the Polynesian pop group, the Jets. Today, he carves bone. His work features the clean organic lines of Maori design—and, like his music, resonates across cultures.

HH: Why is there such interest in Maori design?

AW: Many of these symbols are universal. The spiral, for example: In Maori, it’s the koru, the fern unfurling. In many other cultures, the shape stands for new beginnings.

How did you go from music to bone?

With the Jets, I’d been isolated from symbols of my culture—with the exception of a bone piece I wore. It gave me a sense of my heritage. When I was on the road in Wisconsin, I decided I’d try to make something like it. There was no bone, no ivory, so I went to a Home Depot, got a piece of PVC piping and did what I could. After a show one night, a guy liked the piece so much he bought it. That was a thrill.

What’s the appeal of bone?

Taking something that’s dead and making it alive.

Where’s the best place to wear your work?

Surfing, of course!