Everything Ming

From precious jade bracelets to intricately carved earrings, Linda Lee tours us through her collection of Ming’s jewelry.

Linda Lee thought she knew all about Ming’s Jewelry while growing up and watching her mother adorn herself with Ming’s 14-kt gold, jade and pearl jewelry. Teens being teens, she had zero interest in her mother’s style. Then one day, during a visit to the Hawaii All-Collectors Show, she found herself admiring sterling silver and ivory earrings-carved into a sculptural bamboo design-and was surprised to discover it was also by Ming’s.

“I was just awed. I bought it and when I went home I kept looking at it and looking at it and wondering what else they made. Then I started remembering the Sunday ads they ran.”

That marked the start of Ming’s fever for Lee, and the beginning of a collection that numbers about 300 pieces. The timing of her discovery could not have been more fortuitous, a year and a half after the launch of eBay in fall of 1995. She scoured the Internet in search of more pieces. “Once I found out what they made, I became more and more curious. At that time,

very few people were on eBay so sellers were offering them for almost nothing.”

She also placed classified ads in newspapers, which turned up many of the more popular, generic pieces. “All the Japanese ladies had the woodrose. I don’t know why.”

Today, those pieces that were sold to downtown Honolulu office workers in the 1940s through ’60s for about $14 or $16 regularly fetch prices of $300 to $1,500 on eBay and vintage and antique jewelry boutiques. When Lee started her collection, she could find pieces piered for $25.

“I’ve been really lucky. I try to buy pieces in sets and that are not chipped.”

Ming’s was prolific in the type of jewelry created and sold, and while some collectors focus on the jewelry brand’s gold scroll jewelry, or jade and pearl jewelry, all with motifs blending Hawaiian ˙ora and Asian designs, Lee continues to focus on the carved, hand-painted ivory and sterling silver jewelry.

“It’s really pretty and these pieces traveled all around the world because people who came to Hawai’i wanted to bring home something like this that was unique to the islands.”

She also seeks out rarities, such as beautiful ivory and silver pieces created by artist Isami Doi that are now worth about

$2,000, and pieces that did not sell well during their debut, such as Uli Uli Player and Pahu Drummer styles that would have sold in the 1940s for $14.40 in brooch form with matching sterling silver earrings for $4.80.

They were the Hawaiian equivalents of Black Americana figures considered racist today. Today, a complete set of brooch and matching earrings would be worth about $2,000.

More common pieces include plumeria earrings that were once part of the uniform of Hawaiian Airlines stewardesses, who also wore fresh plumeria in their hair.

Ming’s of Honolulu was started by the artist Wook Moon in 1940 and over time became known as the “Tiffany of the Pacific,” eventually expanding beyond our shores to San Francisco, New York City, Miami, Houston, Ft. Lauderdale and Atlanta.

“He really wanted to make pieces affordable for working girls in town so everybody could have a nice piece of jewelry. He offered no interest layaway.” Sometimes, a piece of jade would crack, and Moon would repair it, masking the crack with a gold band that was free or offered at a nominal fee.

“I always try to wear a jade because I feel it protects you,” says Lee. “It’s believed that when a piece of jade cracks, it protected its wearer from something bad. It can protect you again and again, so I’ve seen a lot of people wearing jade bangles covered with the ‘band-aid.'”

As with all good things, cheap imitations of Ming’s carved ivory flooded the market after 1949, but Lee said they lack the delicacy and detail of the real deal.

“Mr. Moon created Hawaiian flowers, Chinese flowers, he did a lot of leaves and he rarely did a flat leaf. His plumerias have a definite curve that make them look natural.

“He also painted a lot of the ivory pieces himself. I can tell which ones he did because of the way he blended the colors.”

The last Ming’s store on Fort Street Mall closed in October, 1999, not due to lack of sales, Lee said, but lack of succession.

Even so, the Ming’s name continues to resonate, and Lee said she always attracts attention when wearing her pieces, noting generational differences in responses.

“Younger people will ask, ‘What kind of bracelet is that?’ but older people will say, ‘Oh, you have a Ming’s.'”

In spite of the increased interest in Ming’s pieces and attendant competition and rising prices, Lee says she’s glad the company is getting its due.

“I’m really glad that people can appreciate and enjoy it.”

Are you a collector? We’d love to hear more. Email mjacinto@staradvertiser.com.

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