Adored to Extinction

Thursday 24 January 2019

This brooch is a European manifestation of a Māori tradition. As one of New Zealand’s most famous birds, the now-extinct huia was revered by Māori and ornaments made from the bird’s feathers or beaks were treasured.

Huia beak brooch with opal

Huia Beak Brooch with opal. Canterbury Museum 2018.137.1

The distinctive white-tipped black feathers were traded across Aotearoa and given as gifts. The Duke of York famously received a huia feather as a gift during his visit in 1901 sparking a fashion craze in Britain.

European biologists and jewellers were fascinated by the huia’s beak. Male and female huia had very distinctly shaped beaks used for different purposes. The difference was so marked that taxonomists thought they were two different species at first. Males had a short, stout beak that they used to dig into decaying wood and extract insects. The female’s larger, curved beak could extract larvae from more solid wood.

Jewellers turned the more distinct female beaks into brooches worn by fashionable Pākehā women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The use of huia feathers and beaks in fashion certainly contributed to their eventual extinction by 1907, but loss of habitat caused by deforestation, predation by introduced mammals and the hunting of huia for sale to museums around the world were much more detrimental to the species.

This brooch is believed to have been worn by Elizabeth Marie Morrison, whose initials are engraved onto one of the fittings.

This item is not currently on display in the Museum.

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