American Indian Jewelry

We feature traditional Native American jewelry from the Hopi, Navajo, Santo Domingo and Zuni.

Please follow the links to handcrafted necklaces, bracelets, pendants and earrings at the bottom of the page.

Jewelry is one of the most ancient Native American crafts.  The use of turquoise and shell in American Indian jewelry began well over two thousand years ago.  Turquoise has been found in excavations that date to 900BC or earlier, and seashells have been an item of trade to desert tribes since prehistoric times.

 

In the United States, turquoise occurs in a few isolated locations of the southwest.  Important prehistoric mines have been found in the Cerillos region of New Mexico, near Kingman and Morenci in Arizona, the Conejos area of Colorado, and other locales.  Prehistoric Indians mined turquoise and crafted beads and other ornaments such as mosaic on shell.  The spiny oyster shell was another important element in prehistoric jewelry, and, as with turquoise, it remains so today.  Spiny oyster was traded to various inland Indian peoples by other tribes living on the coast of the Gulf of California.  The shell has been found in excavations of the Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam cultures of the American southwest.  The use of both these materials in Indian jewelry has continued into modern times through a chain of descent from these early peoples to today's Pueblo cultures.  While the primary jewelry-making Pueblos are now the Hopi, Santo Domingo, and Zuni, the tradition is maintained to some degree at several others.

 

The Navajo are the fourth major jewelry-producing tribe of the present day.  Unlike the Pueblo peoples whose ancestors lived in the southwest for millennia, the Navajo migrated to the area from what is now Canada only a couple of centuries before the arrival of the Spanish in the New World.  The material culture of the Navajo was influenced by the Pueblo peoples and, later, by the Spanish.  Pueblo stone/shell beadwork, Spanish symbols such as the pomegranate blossom, and silverwork from Mexico combined to inspire Navajo jewelry methods and design.  It is generally believed that Mexican silversmiths, trading silver jewelry to the Pueblos and Navajo in the early nineteenth century, first introduced silverwork to the Navajo, and that actual Navajo silverwork began when a Mexican, called Nakai Tsosi by the Navajo, taught it to a Navajo man called Atsidi Sani (Old Smith) sometime around the middle of that century.  Atsidi was at the time already well familiar with working in iron, so his transition to silver was a natural development.  Atsidi went on to teach the trade to his sons and other men.  Silver jewelry-making became common among the Navajo by the 1880s, about which time turquoise made its first appearance in silver jewelry.  Early Navajo silverwork consisted of belts, bracelets, bowguards, tobacco flasks, and necklaces.  The sources of the early Navajo silver came primarily from Mexican or American coins.

 

While the Zuni were already skilled metalworkers (in addition to their justly famed lapidary skills) by that time, silverwork seems to have first appeared at the Pueblo sometime around 1875, thanks to Atsidi's son Atsidi Chon (Ugly Smith), who taught the craft to a Zuni friend called Lanyade.  Lanyade in turn sold his jewelry to other Pueblos, sometimes teaching the craft as he traveled.  At the Hopi village of Sichomovi, for example, he taught the first Hopi silversmith, a man called Sikyatala.  Many years later, in 1938, the future of Hopi jewelry design would be forever changed when Paul Saufkie and Fred Kabotie began a program at the Museum of Northern Arizona to develop a style that was uniquely Hopi.  Their novel silver-over-silver technique still defines most contemporary Hopi jewelry, with designs taken from prehistoric pottery shards, as well as kachina symbols and clan motifs.

 

Now, a bit about heishi, certainly one of the oldest forms of jewelry in the New World.  Heishi-making is primarily identified in modern times with the exquisite creations from the Pueblo of Santo Domingo in New Mexico (and to a lesser extent with the neighboring San Felipe Pueblo).  Heishi simply means “shell” in the Keres language spoken there, but the term as it is used today refers to handmade beads of various types of shell or stone, most commonly olivella shell, spiny oyster, melon shell, turquoise or coral.  Other materials such as lapis lazuli, jet, pipestone and serpentine are also often used.

 

The first reaction by someone seeing a strand of fine heishi for the first time, and learning that it is handmade, is almost predictably: “How could anyone possibly do that?”.  The process actually involves a number of painstaking steps by an exceptionally skilled craftsperson, steeped in Santo Domingo traditions and techniques.  The maker first cuts the chosen material into pieces of the desired thickness with a fine saw.  From these, smaller pieces are nipped off and shaped into rough circles.  The maker then carefully drills a tiny hole into the center of each of these smaller pieces and strings them on fine wire.  These rough beads are ground to their final diameter by passing the strand over and over again against a grindstone.  During each stage up to this point, significant loss of these fragile materials occurs.  Often as much as 75 percent of the artist’s raw materials and efforts are ultimately wasted in the process.

 

After the strand of heishi has been formed to the desired diameter, it is further shaped and smoothed with increasingly finer grades of sandpaper.  It is then washed in fresh water and placed in the sun to dry.  The strand of heishi is given a final polish, often on a leather belt or a denim trouser-leg, and is then restrung for its ultimate use.  The entire process will have taken from less than a day to as much as a week to create a single strand of heishi.

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