Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, March 13, 1998


By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Harlan Talkington shows off some medal dies from his collection of about 3,500 dies.

Classic metal pieces
are to die for

By Burl Burlingame


THERE'S surely a standard formula for it, a precise mathematical mantra that juggles weight and velocity and gravity and momentum and inertia and the curvature of the earth and the distant pull of the stars, but all Harlan Talkington needs to know is that a 50-lb. hammer dropped 10 feet strikes with enough force to liquify solid metal.

Talkington's Trademark Jewelers workshop at 1481 S. King St. rings like a bell with the sound of this "drop hammer," an antique apparatus that essentially works like a guillotine equipped with a sledge hammer instead of a blade. The walls are lined with hardened steel dies that contain negative impressions of classic pieces of Hawaiian jewelry, medal and badges.

Generally, the last thing a person wants to do is create a negative impression, but this is both Talkington's trade and his passion. After moving here from Pennsylvania in 1975 and working for Holiday Mart's jewelry department, he accepted a dare to learn the fine art of engraving in 30 days.

"In high school, I was the the guy who always headed for the wood shop or the metal shop instead of the library," said Talkington. While working in the jewelry business here - managing Golden Hawaii, now known as Classic Creations - he became friendly with Honolulu's relatively small group of professional jewelers. He learned that the jewelry market in Honolulu a century ago was fiercely competitive, with most of the turf divided between rival shops Freitas Jewelers and Dawkins Benny Jewelers.

Between them, the two shops lobbied for the prestige of providing police and military badges for the Honolulu Police Department and other agencies, as well as producing medals for sporting events and contests.

Talkington acquired the original Frietas drop hammer in the 1980s, and began collecting the original dies. "We now have about 3,500 dies, many of which were covered in grease or rust, and need cleaning up," said Talkington, who does the work with wife Chin Hue.

The dies were made with steel that was made "dead soft" by annealing, or heating, and then allowing to cool slowly, and then engraved by artisans using miniature chisels. "It's almost a lost art, and was done completely by hand," said Talkington. The steel is then tempered back into hardness.

Pieces of flattened gold or silver or an alloy are placed on the die, then the hammer is dropped - WHAM! - and the metal is liquified from the kinetic shock and forced into every crevice. The excess is cleaned up and polished, and if color needs to be applied, it's put on with glass enamels. "We don't use epoxy colors, which very inferior," said Talkington. "The glass enamels have to be heated to about 1,400 degrees to set, and that needs to be done several times, but you can't beat the way it looks and lasts."

He admits this method is "hard to justify the effort, tedious and highly specialized," but that's the way it was done originally.

OK, Talkington's got dies, metal, a drop hammer and technical ex-pertise. He's ready to remanufacture many of these classic pieces for patrons. What he doesn't have is any sort of context. The dies come as they are - mute pieces of metal. There's no history attached. Talkington is trying to discover the origin and time period of many of the original designs.

For example, the Hawaii National Guard medal shown on D-1. Dating from 1895, it shows an ornamental "D" framing a rocketing shell or bullet. It's probably from Company D, perhaps an artillery outfit, but the date of 1895 is also the year of a failed revolutionary attempt to overthrown the Republic of Hawaii. Why was this medal necessary? Talkington would like to know.

Many of the Hawaii police badges have miniature versions known as "sweetheart" pins, worn by the wives or sweethearts of law officers - or both. This notion, copied from the military, is largely a Hawaii phenomenon, and you still see them on wives and moms and girlfriends. But how were they originally worn? How were they colored and mounted? Talkington would like to know.

Some of the dies show military badges, such as the 6th Aero Squa-dron, stationed here in World War I, or sports activities, such as the Ashai baseball team's victory medal, and there is even a Star-Bulletin model-airplane contest medal. When and where were these used? Talkington wants to know.

The remanufactured pieces primarily go to a "small core group of collectors," said Talkington, although he's had success with the general public at collectors' shows. The new pieces are marked on the back so they won't be mistaken for originals. Depending on the amount of precious metal and the complexity of creation, pieces range in price from about $65 to $175.

Missing links

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
° What: Search for information on old Hawaiian medals and badges, such as this National Guard medal from 1895, above.

° Where: Trademark Jewelers, 1481 S. King St.

° Call: Owner Harlan Talkington at 955-3064

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