Southwest Native American Jewelry After the 19th Century
Indigenous peoples from the Southwest United States have been crafting and wearing jewelry for centuries. Long before the Europeans colonized the area, Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Kewa Pueblo people were utilizing the natural bounties of the land to design an abundance of ornamental and functional adornments. Eventually, jewelry would become an indispensable element in their economic survival, acting as trade collateral and currency.
Today, purchasing authentic Native American jewelry and components is still an excellent way to support the indigenous peoples of the southwest region. Native American jewelry artists continue to use ancestral techniques in conjunction with modern materials, tools and styles to create regalia pieces, buttons, bridles, commercialized jewelry and more. Though there are many commonalities, each tribe has their own distinct jewelry history and style.
Towards the end of the 19th century, a skilled Navajo blacksmith named Atsidi Sani learned to work silver alongside a Mexican metalsmith. Atsidi Sani began using his new silversmithing skills to forge bracelets, conchos and other types of Native American jewelry.
Later, he would pass on the knowledge to his sons and brother, Atsidi Chon. Atsidi Chon is considered to be the first smith to set turquoise (a gemstone believed by the Navajo to represent happiness, luck and health) into silver jewelry. He is also credited for bringing silversmithing to the Zuni.
The squash blossom necklace is perhaps the most recognizable Navajo design. Inspired by the horse bridle ornaments of Spanish conquistadors, this design is typically comprised of silver beads, cones and a large ''naja'' pendant. The naja (meaning "crescent") is seen as a symbol of protection.
In the 1900s, the Navajo style would drastically change to meet the rising demand from tourists for “authentic” Indian designs. These pieces were stamped with symbols unrelated to their culture, such as lizards, arrows, thunderbirds and more.
Today, the Navajo’s designs include a diverse mix of modern and traditional patterns, intricate silver leaves, hand-tacked flowers, sand-cast elements, stamping and more.
The Hopi people are most famous for their silver overlay. Until the 1930s, the Hopi tribe had access to very limited quantities of silver, so they innovated. Artists would carve traditional patterns and symbols into a piece of silver. A second, similarly shaped piece would be oxidized black. Then, the carved layer was soldered to the oxidized layer and shaped to create a beautiful contrasting design.
Hopi overlay jewelry is typically silver, but some special or significant pieces incorporate turquoise. As with the Navajo and many other Southwest Native American peoples, turquoise holds a special place in Hopi culture. Hunters would wear a small pouch holding turquoise around their neck to bring good fortune and warriors wore it into battle for protection. It is also traditionally placed around the home to ward off evil.
Zuni use a great deal of colorful, high-quality, cut gemstones. With this, they are known for two distinct styles: stone inlay and "petite point". In the inlay style, stones are worked and then fit together side-by-side or with silver boundaries.
The Zunis do not cast their silver. Each piece is meticulously composed and fabricated starting with metal channels, also known as bezels, to accommodate a stone or group of stones. The gemstones are then cut to fit into the channels. After the stone segments have been affixed the piece is then ground, sanded and polished flat or even with the metal.
The historical colors and materials in Zuni inlay are turquoise, red coral, black jet and white mother-of-pearl. Black and white represent duality, red symbolically represents Mother Earth and turquoise honors Father Sky.
The most traditional Zuni style of jewelry is petit point, which is identified by tiny turquoise stones, each supported in its own bezel setting. This technique is extremely time-consuming work and is very delicate in appearance. The result is an intricate gemstone assemblage similar to these earrings.
The Kewa Pueblo (formerly known as Santo Domingo) tribe is known for stone and mosaic inlay jewelry, but their heishi beads are their most notable contribution.
The word heishe means “shell bead” in the Eastern Keresan language of the Kewa Pueblo. These small tube or disc-shaped beads are traditionally hand ground, drilled, and strung into fluid strands. In modern years, many heishi beads are produced by machine, though there are still Kewa Pueblo artists who use the techniques passed down the generations to laboriously make jewelry and beads by hand.
I would like to note that the designs and products used as examples in this article are not made or sold by Southwest Native Americans. Their use in this article is to present readers with an approximate visual reference. We encourage jewelry designers to continue learning about the distinct tribal styles of Native Peoples to promote creative appreciation and avoid cultural appropriation or generalization when creating pieces inspired by indigenous art forms.
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