Collector and historian Donald Medcalf’s rare set of Hawaiian royal orders.

In an alternate universe, Hawaiʻi might have been part of the United Kingdom, so enamored were the aliʻi of european royalty, ceremony and culture. Monarchs before him adopted European costume and rituals, but it was Lot Kapuaiwa, Kamehameha V, who created Th e Royal Order of Kamehameha I in 1865.

The decoration was named after his grandfather—who united the Hawaiian kingdom—based on the European tradition of bestowing honor on those who have been of service to the crown.

Collector and historian Donald Medcalf, owner of Hawaiian Islands Stamp & Coin (hawaiianislandsstampandcoin.com), says, “Hawaiian royal orders are the rarest in the world. Nations like France continue to issue royal orders, but here, they were awarded only through 1892.” The tradition ended with Queen LiliÊ»uokalani’s reign and the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

The Royal Order of Kamehameha I, a knightly order established by Kamehameha V to promote and protect the sovereignty of the Hawaiian nation, helped design and create the insignias. The fraternity, which continues to preserve and perpetuate the culture, customs and traditions of ancient Hawaiʻi, celebrated its 150th anniversary just last April.

There were three classes of Royal Order of Kamehameha I insignias, all made by Madame Kretly of Paris, France. The most important of these was the Knights Grand Cross, an eight-pointed silver star on which appeared a Maltese cross in white enamel. At the center of the cross is a blue-and-white shield emblazoned with “Kamehameha I” at the rim. Forty of these insignias were awarded to a mix of subjects and foreign royalty and dignitaries.

Recipients included: Queen Victoria of England; Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh; Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria; King Charles I of Bavaria; Emperor Wilhelm I and Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Germany; King Rama V of Siam; King Umberto I of Italy; and Emperor Mutsuhito and Crown Prince Arisugawa of Japan.

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The Royal Order of Kamehameha I and later royal decorations were bestowed by the Hawaiian monarchy upon those of service to the crown. Pictured are the Knights Companion Cross and larger, eight-pointed Knights Grand Cross.

The grand cross measures 3-1/4 inches. Smaller decorations are the Knights Commander Insignia, measuring 2-1/4 inches, and the Knights Companion Insignia, measuring 1-1/2 inches.

Interestingly, foreigners were exempt from being charged for the awards, but because of the cost of making them, subjects of the kingdom were charged an “admittance fee” of $250 for the grand cross, $150 for the Knights Commander and $75 for the Knights Companion—no small fee at the time of their distribution. So subjects who received them often represented the kingdom’s elite, including royal consorts John O. Dominis, A.S. Cleghorn and Charles Reed Bishop. According to inflation calculators, the respective awards would cost $3,622, $2,173 and $1,086 in today’s dollars. If an individual could not afford to pay, the king could waive the fee.

The royal orders were to be worn with pride as a symbol of the king’s favor, worn on a ribbon sash, an ornamental collar or chain or suspended from the neck by a grosgrain ribbon of red-and-white stripes.

Kamehameha V and Kalakaua conferred 238 Royal Order of Kamehameha insignias. Although this order was never bestowed on Hawaiian queens and princesses, they were allowed to wear the insignia, which can be spotted in many formal portraits of Kapiʻolani and Liliʻuokalani. Th e Knights Commander and Knights Companion insignias, with a crown perched above the Maltese cross, was a favorite of the royals.

During his reign, Kalakaua created four more royal orders: the Royal Order of Kalakaua I to commemorate his election to the throne in 1875; the Royal Order of Kapiʻolani to commemorate the deeds of his queen and bestowed for services rendered in the areas of art, science and humanity; the Royal Order of the Crown of Hawaiʻi to commemorate his coronation; and the Royal Order of the Star of Oceania in 1886, to fulfill his vision of uniting with other independent South Pacific islands to form an empire. Th is award was given for distinguished service in promoting Hawaiʻi throughout the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

The Royal Order of Kalakaua was bestowed on 435 individuals, the majority during Kalakaua’s reign. Queen LiliÊ»uokalani conferred this order 15 times, the last in 1892. Th ere were 294 individuals who received the Royal Order of Kapi’olani. Th ey included members of the royal family, international royalty, Royal Hawaiian Band Master Henry Berger, sugar mill managers and several Russian navy lieutenants. Th e Royal Order of the Crown was awarded to 469 individuals, and 50 people received the Royal Order of the Star of Oceania.

Many of the royal orders remain the property of crown collections, so very few ever appear for sale, and Medcalf, who has helped Ê»Iolani Palace and private collectors acquire royal orders, says the last time he saw a Royal Order of Kamehameha I Knights Grand Cross appear was at a Paris auction about 25 years ago. It sold for $30,000, the equivalent of about $54,000 in today’s dollars.

Medcalf says most inquiries about the royal orders today come from outside HawaiÊ»i. Because the royal tradition ended in 1892, few here know what they are. “There are people around the world who collect royal orders, and I have others for sale, from countries like Belgium, that cost $300 to $400.”

A simple online search turns up examples from throughout Europe, Thailand and kingdoms that no longer exist, such as Prussia and the short-lived Westphalia Napoleon Republic, established within present-day Germany and ruled by Napoleon’s brother Jerome Bonaparte.

To collect the royal orders is to feel connected to a storied, regal past.