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Pendant Necklace (Lei Palaoa)

Visually, the lei palaoa is an object of contrasts: a hard, smooth piece of butter-colored ivory is set off by the dark, textured braids of multiple strands of human hair. Before European contact, a necklace such as this was worn by nobility of both sexes on ceremonial occasions or into battle as a symbol of their genealogical lineage. A woman considered her lei palaoa to be her most valuable personal possession, and for a man it was second only to his feather cape or cloak in importance. King Kamehameha I (ca. 1758–1819), who established the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810, transformed the necklace into a symbol of his political power and authority. Under his successor, Kamehameha II, it became a status symbol that was no longer restricted to a particular group.

As elsewhere in Polynesia, ivory was a precious material for Hawaiians. Before European contact, it was very rare, obtained only from beached whales. With the coming of traders and whalers in the nineteenth century, however, not only did the availability of whale ivory increase, but walrus ivory, taken by ships from the Arctic seas before they entered the South Pacific, was introduced.

Hawai’i
Pendant Necklace (Lei Palaoa)
1800–1850
Walrus ivory, human hair, fiber
L. 13 7/8 in. (35.1 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, 80.23