By Kent Coules, Publisher
Most successful jewelry companies don’t start out as a dive shop. But this is Hawai‘i, where unusual starts to local businesses are commonplace. With that in mind…
Backstroke to 1958 when master divers Jack Ackerman and Larry Wembley took guests deep-sea diving off Lahaina, Maui. On that day, more than 200 feet below the surface, they came across something mysterious and never before seen—black coral.
“Black coral is only found in waters between 150-300 feet deep off Maui,” says Cole Slater, executive vice president for Maui Divers Jewelry. “The coral is a sea animal protein that is compressed by the 500 pounds per square inch of pressure at those depths.”
Over the next few months, Jack and Larry made and sold a few trinkets out of their dive shop. But the following year, they met up with O‘ahu entrepreneur Cliff Slater and the Maui Divers Jewelry business was born. “Today Hawaiian black coral is considered to be the most lustrous coral in the world,” says Slater. “In 1959, the founders had no idea how it would play out.”
They did know enough to protect the precious coral. “From the beginning, Maui Divers was concerned about sustainability,” says Slater. “They partnered with the University of Hawai‘i to research the black coral, and adopted methods of selective harvesting, which ensured the coral’s continued growth. And, they worked with agencies to agree on ways to carefully harvest from selected sites to ensure a healthy environment.”
By 1962, the company expanded operations and relocated to Honolulu. “Maui Divers established itself as a manufacturer and wholesaled their products to a variety of companies over the next 20 years,” says Slater. “We didn’t start the retail operation until the mid-80’s. Around 1988 we started the Maui Divers Jewelry Design Center tour. After a few months, the factory tour became part of what we are known for.”
The tour is an education in fine jewelry making. Each guest views a seven-minute video and then a guide walks them through the process from start to finish. I learned that rings are made from ring “trees,” for instance, with the rings coming off the branches of the tree. When completed, a tree contains $13-20k worth of the gold and the base is re-melted and the gold used again. Adds Slater, “And from the finishing process we vacuum up $30-50k worth of gold dust each month. It gets sent to a refinery where it’s separated from the other dusts.”
We walk through the hub of the center, where the pearls and other gems are kept by size and grade. Each gem is chosen specifically for each piece of jewelry.
I ask Slater what Maui Divers Jewelry is known for. “Our most popular design over the years is probably the ‘Yin Yang’ collection, an eternal circle swirled into equal halves. The Yin Yang symbol celebrates Asian ideals of balance and harmony.”
After the tour I get a behind-the-scenes peek of the design department with Creative Manager Hugo Laverde. He demonstrates how Maui Divers Jewelry uses 3D CAD design technology to bring their new designs to life. “We create new designs and go through an internal review to determine what gets made. After that, we create limited editions of the chosen pieces, and monitor sales to determine how we want to proceed.”
I ask Laverde, a recent transfer from New York City, what he enjoys most about designing for Maui Divers Jewelry. “I love that we capture the essence of Hawai‘i in the jewelry we create. We make jewelry in Hawai‘i for Hawai‘i, and it is very satisfying to know that visitors to our islands choose our rings and necklaces to remember their time here.”
“What we’re most proud of,” adds Slater, “is our forever guarantee, this covers workmanship and materials forever, not just the lifetime of the customer. It is great to know our jewelry gets handed down generations and we are still here to take care of the products. We had one customer who brought in 52 pieces that she purchased over the years for polishing. She had come to Hawai‘i every six months for 26 years and purchased a piece each time. We had another client who had purchased a piece in 1959, one of our first pieces of jewelry ever, and brought it in for polishing. She was gifting it to her daughter as a wedding present, and it looked brand new when we were finished!”
“We’re honored every day to be part of visitors’ Hawai‘i experience.”
[This article appears in print in the January-March 2020 editions of This Week Oahu]
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