‘Dad, what’s a lapidary?”
Growing up in blue-collar Carteret, N.J., Dave Haake had come across that weird vocabulary item in the want ads. His father, a printer whose bread and butter was the Jersey City telephone book, had no idea.
Jump-cut to 1981, when Dave and Grace, his bride of 24 hours, waved goodbye to friends and family and went winging west to Maui one Sunday on a pair of one-way tickets.
“We got here,” he said, “I took a look around and I decided, I don’t care what I’ve got to do, I’m not leaving this place.”
The feeling never changed.
Back East, Haake had been delivering auto parts and jobbing in warehouses. But he was intrigued by a want ad looking for someone to do sanding and polishing, so he applied and landed the job. Overnight, a lapidary was born — that’s someone who cuts, polishes, carves and engraves stones or, by extension, other durable materials. And in time, this one proved a self-taught artist of distinction.
“Requests from customers pushed me to expand my skills,” Haake says. “One customer wanted a replacement for an intricately carved Chinese chess piece he had lost. I also got a lot of requests for pistol grips.”
But what turned out to be his true forte was the carving of eye-catching ornamental fishhooks in pre-ban ivory, no two alike.
Fishhooks show up all over the Polynesian Triangle, as tackle in everyday practical use or as a powerful tribal signifier. Here at the apex of the Triangle, the constellation Western astronomers call Scorpio appears as Manaiakalani, the cosmic fishhook by which Maui, legendary snarer of the sun, pulled the island chain from the depths of the ocean floor. Small wonder the motif reappears endlessly in body art, on T-shirts and in souvenir stand bric-a-brac.
In Haake’s variations on the theme, bold curves hold their own with wicked barbs in a timeless but dynamic harmony.
Ask the Mauian transplanted from New York who went back East, got introduced to the president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art at the opera, and found the lady — herself a renowned collector of top-of-the-line contemporary art — transfixed by his Haake pendant. “That,” she said, “is a wonderful piece. Wherever did you find it?”
The answer: at Lahaina Scrimshaw, on the far end of Front Street. But don’t go looking for it now. The shop closed in June 2018, the last vestige of a concern that in its heyday operated out of better than a half-dozen outlets islandwide. Haake had worked there for 37 years.
The studio in the industrial area beyond the highway was a dusty and busy place, with different rooms dedicated to different product lines, from the etched whalebone known as scrimshaw to silver and gold jewelry.
At the beginning, Haake sanded and polished chunks of Alaskan fossil ivory as scrimshaw blanks. Soon he moved on to exotic hardwoods, turning out whatever there was a need for: card holders, letter openers and the like, as well as display stands for the finished pieces. When the business took on a silversmith and then a goldsmith, Haake picked up their trades, too.
Together with the goldsmith, he wound up developing a line of 14-karat gold jewelry in the form of whale tails, dolphins, turtles and mantas. “Back then,” Haake says, “we were really jamming.”
With the passing of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the tide began to turn. In 1989 a national ban on the import of elephant ivory went into effect. And in June 2017, Hawaii banned the sale of ivory from any source.
“The ivory trade is dead in Hawaii,” Haake says, without complaint, though it’s a reality even a committed conservationist might see in shades of gray.
With the shuttering of the Lahaina Scrimshaw storefront, the studio closed down, too, leaving Haake without a space to spread out. “I didn’t want to invest in a workshop at this point,” he says. So, his operation is down to fishhooks now, which he carves in the shade of the palms on the beach across from his and Grace’s condo on South Kihei Road.
Transitioning from traditional materials, he tried maple burls compacted with metallic resins, some partially transparent, some fluorescent. To eyes accustomed to his classic work in white and off-white, they could look flashy. Since then Haake has taken up composites made from crushed red coral, as bright as a candy apple, and minerals on the green-to-blue-to-lilac spectrum like malachite, chrysocolla and turquoise.
Though his aesthetic hasn’t changed, the jewel-tone palette gives his new work a jazzier, more contemporary appeal. At an average price point of around $220, the gemstone pieces run about 40% off the no- longer-obtainable ivories of yesteryear. The prices on pieces in exotic hardwoods and other materials range both higher and lower.
How many hours go into a fishhook? “It depends,” Haake says. “Usually I work on several pieces at once. I don’t like to worry about how much money I’m making. I just want to make them as nice as I can. I hope it works out. So long as I can get by, I’m good. I’m not trying to get rich.”
Where to find Haake’s hooks
In the old days, carvers might initial their pieces, but shops seldom promoted them individually. That practice appears to remain in force today. Once the rival of Lahaina Scrimshaw, Whalers Locker on Front Street carries an attractive assortment of Dave Haake’s recent pieces. There’s more at Totally Hawaiian Gift Gallery in Whalers Village, Maui Ocean Arts on South Kihei Road, and at the Gottling Home Store at the Shops in Wailea. Farther afield, Haake’s hooks can be found at the Hana Coast Gallery in Hana and Makai Glass Maui on Haliimaile Road. “Hey,” an impressed collector remarked, “you’re all over the island.” Haake’s reply: “I’m trying to be!” Most of the salespeople at the listed outlets know his name.