Image: Maui Diver Jewelry
Lucy Pemoni  /  AP
Shoppers browse in the main showroom at Maui Diver Jewelry Design Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 50 years of business, the company has grown into the world's largest manufacturer of black coral jewelry and Hawaii's largest jewelry retailer.
updated 8/21/2007 4:23:43 PM ET 2007-08-21T20:23:43

It started as a simple dive shop in 1958, taking tourists and locals on scuba tours in the Pacific Ocean off Maui. But a year after opening for business, Maui Divers workers found what resembled a black bush in deep waters off the Molokai Channel.

Maui Divers began harvesting the black coral, gave up the scuba tours, and opened jewelry stores to sell the coral in rings, pendants and necklaces. The company is now the world's largest manufacturer of black coral jewelry and Hawaii's largest jewelry retailer. It has more than 60 stores and kiosks in nearly every tourist spot in the islands, from the Dole Plantation on Oahu to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitor Center on the Big Island.

More than 150,000 people a year also visit the company's 12,000-square-foot design center in Honolulu, near Waikiki. Visitors can watch a video about the company's history, observe jewelers making the pieces and see the 3,000 designs on display in row after row of glass cases.

The company also has been successful with Pick-A-Pearl stands, where customers pay $13 to buy an unopened oyster and whatever pearl they find inside, and half of those customers then buy a pendant or other jewelry to mount the pearl, with the average buyer spending $150, Taylor said.

Despite overharvesting problems with black coral in the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere, the coral found in Hawaii has been well-maintained, said Richard Grigg, University of Hawaii oceanographer and coral reef specialist. "Black coral in Hawaii is a small pocket that just seems to work," he said.

Image" Maui Diver worker
Lucy Pemoni  /  AP
An employee works on a ring at Maui Diver Jewelry Design Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The coral is a living organism that attaches itself to rocks in deep ocean water and grows like a plant. It isn't supposed to be harvested unless it's 4 feet high or about 19 years old, Grigg said.

Besides black coral, the company sells gold, red and pink coral, much of which also is found in Hawaiian waters. The company has partnered with the University of Hawaii to find the pink coral and gold coral by using a two-man submarine, Star II.

After divers harvest the coral hundreds of feet below the ocean, the company buys it in bundles, cuts, shapes and polishes different cuts, including round, oval and pear shapes, to sell at its stores in jewelry priced from $80 to $3,000.

There aren't many people left diving for the precious coral, as 25 divers in the past 40 years have died or become crippled from the dives, usually more than 200 feet down, Grigg said.

Maui Divers has also begun designing jewelry that uses less coral, adding diamonds, gold, pearls and other gems.

The company has grown from $33.9 million in sales in 2002 to $72.8 million in 2006, and has also opened shops in Guam, California and Las Vegas — many located inside Hilo Hattie stores, which market a broad array of island goods.

"We really want to be a global leader in travel retail jewelry," said chief executive Bob Taylor.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Hawaiian paradise

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  1. Waimea Canyon, Kauai

    Kalalau Valley, on Kauai's west side, is more than 3,000 feet deep and provides stunning panoramic views. Waimea is nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific." (John Borthwick / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Honolulu, Hawaii

    Men row their Hawaiian outrigger canoe towards Waikiki beach, with Diamond Head in the background. Outrigger canoes are now used for recreation purposes and to ride the waves, but in times past they were the main means of transportation between the Hawaiian Islands. (Mike Nelson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The tranquil waters of Oahu

    Hanauma Bay is one of the finest stretches of beach in the world. (Eric L Wheater / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Surfer's paradise

    Australian Luke Egan competes on Oahu's North Shore, one of the best places in Hawaii to ride the big waves. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Water colors

    A school of manini fish pass over a coral reef at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Donald Miralle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wailua Falls

    The beautiful 83-foot tiered Wailua Falls is an easily accessible, must-see waterfall on the island of Kauai. Wailua Falls was first made famous when it was featured in the television show, "Fantasy Island." (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Emerald peaks

    The iconic, towering emerald peaks of the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, stand out in Maui's Iao Valley State Park. (Adina Tovy Amsel / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historic reminder

    The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marks the resting place of many of the battleship's 1,177 crew members who lost their lives during the Attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by the Japanese. The memorial is the "ground zero" of World War II. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Aloha!

    Hula dancers welcome the sailing crew of a Hokule'a, a canoe, into Kailua Bay. (Ronen Zilberman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The heart of Hawaii

    The sun sets on Honolulu, Oahu's capital and Hawaii's largest, most populous city. (Robert Y. Ono / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Polynesian heat

    Brandon OFueo Maneafaiga, 23, of Waianae, Hawaii balances two flaming knifes during the 13th Annual World Fireknife Championship at the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Laie, Hawaii. (Lucy Pemoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    People watch from a viewing area as an explosion takes place on Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, in Pahoa, Hawaii. Legend says the volcano goddess Pele dug fire pits as she traveled from island to island looking for a home with her brothers and sisters. She finally settled at Kilauea's summit, where she lives at Halemaumau crater. (Leigh Hilbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Forces of nature

    The Dragon's Teeth are bizarre lava formations eroded by wind and salt spray at Makalua-puna Point. (Karl Lehmann / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Heaven on Earth

    Astronomy observatories are seen on the peak of the snow-covered, Mauna Kea mountain near Hilo, Hawaii. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano. (Tim Wright / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. On the way to Sainthood

    Tourists walk through a cemetery past the grave, left, of Father Damien at Kalawao, Hawaii. After cancer patient Audrey Toguchi prayed to Father Damien, known for helping leprosy patients in Hawaii, to help her, and her cancer went away, Pope Benedict XVI approved the case in July 2008 as Damien's second miracle, opening the way for the 19th century Belgian priest to be declared a saint. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Cool colors

    Rainbow eucalyptus (Mindanao Gum) trees grow in Keanae, Maui. Once a year, these magnificent trees shed their bark and take on the colors of the rainbow. (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Magic Sands

    An aerial view of La'aloa Beach Park or Magic Sands beach in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The beach is called Magic Sands because when rough surf hits, all of the sand is emptied off the beach and temporarily moved out to sea. (Brian Powers / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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