Treasured Past

From royal jewelry to personal stationary, priceless items are housed in the hidden collections of ‘Iolani Palace, some of which have never been displayed.

Text By
Matthew Dekneef
Michelle Mishina

The palace’s inventory numbers more than
5,000 items.

In a stark white chamber of ‘Iolani Palace’s collections room, a gold pocket watch rests on a piece of cloth fabric. The watch’s cover is inscribed with ornate script that reads KIK, the monogram of King Kalākaua. The gloved hands of collections specialist Halia Hester handle the object with a mix of care and anxiety that seems surgical, as if they are transporting a human organ. Hester admits she has never opened the watch before, and her colleagues hold their collective breath. She unlocks it. Inside, opposite the watch’s face, an inscription reveals it belonged to Colonel Curtis Pi‘ehu Iaukea, presented to him by Queen Kapi‘olani on April 27, 1895. The glass surface of the timepiece is pristine. The clock’s hands are static, frozen in time.

There are other never-displayed relics from Hawai‘i’s royalty that Hester and her team have yet to reveal: a brooch and earrings fashioned of pink coral and seed pearls, a debonair three-piece silver smoking set, and a frosted glass decanter labeled “Oke,” shorthand for ‘ōkolehao, the liquor distilled from ti root that is popularly referred to today as “Hawaiian moonshine.” The most impressive, if intimidating, is a Scottish Rite 33-degree sword that belonged to Kalākaua, a reminder of his dynasty’s Freemason associations.

But the pocket watch feels emblematic of all the contents vaulted away on the top floor of ‘Iolani Palace—artifacts that represent a bygone area, trapped in time, yet still able to surprise and share stories anew.

It turns out that identifying the objects ‘Iolani Palace has not yet displayed is a challenge. The palace is a unique museum in the sense that most of its collection is already on view during guided tours of its rooms and corridors or has been included in special exhibits. Many of the never-displayed pieces, like stationary, don’t fit the thematic scope of what’s encountered by guests in the palace, or are simply too delicate, like jewelry, to be placed throughout the open rooms; others are waiting for the opportune moment to be curated into special exhibits on the basement floor. The palace’s total inventory of items, both seen and unseen by the public, numbers just more than 5,000.

As a result, the majority of what the specialists have gathered in response to our inquiry are noteworthy amounts of dinner invites, calling cards, and letters handwritten by Hawai‘i’s monarchs during travels abroad. Local history and diplomatic views are discussed in an 1886 letter from Kalākaua to Robert Walker Irwin, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i’s minister in Japan, in which he writes of a fire that burned down Chinatown two months prior and of obtaining Japanese laborers to dam up Leilehua Valley. In a personal note from Lili‘uokalani to a friend, she extends an invitation to go fishing, and that is all—a prosaic glimpse at the life of a future queen who was then just a princess with a penchant for spending a free day by the water like anyone else. There is a flourish and yet a weight to this everyday ephemera of royalty.

Piecing together ‘Iolani Palace is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. Once the political epicenter of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the Palace seeks to restore its original contents—practically everything that now resides inside was put up for public auction or sold at a royal estate sale following the Overthrow. Zita Cup Choy, the resident historian and docent educator, has worked at ‘Iolani Palace for more than 40 years—“back when the Throne Room was just carpet, and that’s it!” she recalls—and has seen its collection grow since the museum opened its doors to the public in 1978. Scrutinizing historical photographs, government inventories, and newspaper clippings, the collections team will establish the provenance of the items by looking for maker’s marks and transcribing detailed oral histories. This is how it has acquired everything from side tables to sets of china.

As the initial contact between donor and palace, the collections team is who verifies an item’s connection to ‘Iolani Palace and answers that call, literally. “When the phone rings, I get ecstatic,” says Leona Hamano, the collection manager. “Who could be at the opposite end of the phone, right? Is it something they want to share with us or with the public?” Often, the query is not about an outright donation but rather a request to authenticate a piece in one’s possession. “They’re looking for information,” Cup Choy says, “and in the process of helping them find information, we’re developing a relationship.”

That donation process, from the initial call to an object’s acceptance by ‘Iolani Palace, can take more than a year. In some cases, it can take more than 20, as was the case with a window bench now off the Gold Room. “You have to respect that they are family heirlooms and they have an emotional connection to it,” Cup Choy says of the items not yet returned, elsewhere in the world and still unseen. “When they’re ready, it might come back.”


Personal stationary and pendants reveal glimpses into the daily lives of the royal families.

The palace’s inventory numbers more than
5,000 items.

Black onyx mourning pendant with portrait of William Pitt Leleiohoku II, a prince of the Hawaiian Kingdom and member of the reigning House of Kalākaua.

A timepiece of Colonel Curtis Pi‘ehu Iaukea. Opposite, a decanter labeled “Oke,” shorthand for ‘ōkolehao, the liquor distilled from ti root.

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