Jewelry has been made and worn in the Southwest since prehistoric times. For hundreds of years Native Southwestern people have made mosaic inlay and beads of turquoise, shell, bone or stone. Chaco Canyon and other Anasazi sites—the ancestors of today’s Pueblo tribes of New Mexico—were at the center of major turquoise trade routes that ran from the Pacific Northwest to Central America. Shells like abalone and spiny oyster shell came to the region from the coast and were an important element in Anasazi jewelry.
Native Americans of the Southwest were introduced to metal by the Spanish. For years they acquired metal ornaments through trade, and it was not until the middle of the 19th century that Navajo and Zuni artisans learned metalwork from Mexican blacksmiths and silversmiths. Their early silver jewelry creations were very plain, decorated with simple designs that were engraved, stamped, filed, chiseled or punched using hand-made tools. Turquoise was first used in silver around 1880. By the turn of the century, silversmithing was widespread across the Southwest and Native artists were making more sophisticated pieces like concho belts, ketohs, which are men’s bow guards, manta pins, najas and squash blossom necklaces.
The Navajo and Zuni styles diverged in the early 20th century. The Navajo became known for their use of silver, emphasizing silver-heavy designs with only a few gemstones, while the Zuni focused on stone work, featuring finely cut clusters of gems in complex patterns. The Hopi and Pueblo tribes also developed distinctive jewelry styles during this time. Today, silver jewelry is an iconic image of the Southwest. Native American artists continue to handcraft silver jewelry in the traditional styles of their Pueblo or tribe, but in the last 50 years there has been an exciting period of innovation with artists drawing upon influences from other tribes as well as cultures around the world. Jewelry-making continues to play a central role in contemporary Southwestern life, and Native American shell, gemstone and silver jewelry is prized and collected by people around the world.
Styles & Techniques Channel Inlay
Channel inlay is a distinctive jewelry technique closely associated with Native American people of the Southwest, particularly jewelers of Zuni Pueblo. When creating channel inlay jewelry, artists set precisely cut gemstones into pre-formed silver channels. The technique allows artists to use colorful combinations of gemstones in complex and creative patterns. Channel inlay requires masterful silversmithing and lapidary skills and is utilized by Native American jewelers to create magnificent jewelry pieces recognized for their craftsmanship and beauty as art.
Zuni Cluster Work, Petit Point& Needle Point
Cluster work is a jewelry style that is unique to the Zuni people and not found anywhere else in the world. Early Zuni jewelry resembled Navajo silverwork, but in the 1920s and 1930s Zuni artisans developed a signature style that involved setting large groups of hand cut gemstones into extremely intricate settings. The finely cut gems were often arranged in beautiful patterns that resembled flowers, snowflakes or wagon wheels. Though Zuni cluster work is most closely associated with turquoise, jet and coral, any gemstone may be used. Petit point and needlepoint are two types of Zuni cluster work and can be distinguished by the shape and size of the gemstones. Petit point refers to gems cut into round, oval, rectangle, pear or square shapes, whileneedlepoint refers to gems that have been cut into a thin sliver or needle shape. Cluster work is an extremely time-consuming process and fewer and fewer artists are taking the time to hand cut their gemstones. A true piece of Zuni cluster jewelry is an exquisite piece of wearable art that showcases the unmatched lapidary skills of Zuni artists and will be an heirloom for generations to come.
Shell Mosaic Inlay
Shell mosaic inlay jewelry is a signature style of Santo Domingo jewelers. Artists create shell mosaic inlay by attaching tiny gemstone tiles to a shell base, forming colorful and unique patterns. The technique can be traced back to early forms of jewelry unearthed at Anasazi sites throughout the Southwest, and many artists model their inlay designs after these early artifacts. Angie Reano Owen is credited with reviving the tradition of inlaid jewelry in Santo Domingo Pueblo in the 1970s, and today Santo Domingo mosaic inlay is one of the jewelry styles most sought after by collectors of Native American art.
Sandcasting is a generations-old method of jewelry used by Navajo and Native American silversmiths. In the casting process, a design is hand-carved into sandstone, creating a negative space where molten silver or gold can be poured. After casting, the piece is refined and decorated by hand. A single sand cast can take 3 or 4 days to carve and usually lasts for only a handful of castings, making this a fragile process that is practiced by only the most skilled artists. Jewelry created through sandcasting is often bold in design and substantial in silver weight and is favored by Navajo silversmiths to create both traditional and contemporary work.
Tufa casting is a generations-old method of jewelry making developed by Navajo silversmiths. Tufa is a porous volcanic stone found in New Mexico and Arizona that is easy to cut and carve. In the casting process, a design is hand-carved into tufa stone, creating a negative space where molten silver or gold can be poured. After casting, the piece is refined and decorated by hand. Typically, tufa molds last for only one or two castings, making this a fragile process that is practiced by only the most skilled artists. Jewelry created through this process can be identified easily by the distinctive texture left on the metal by the tufa stone during casting.
In the decades just before and after World War II, Hopi silversmiths developed their own sophisticated jewelry technique called overlay, which involves soldering together two pieces of metal. The artist begins by tracing a design onto a sheet of silver then saws out the design by hand, a difficult process requiring a high level of skill. The top piece is soldered to another layer of silver, and the bottom layer is oxidized to create a beautiful contrast with the highly polished top layer. Designs and patterns often incorporate traditional symbols, including sun, water, cornstalks, bear claws and the kokopelli. The overlay technique creates highly dimensional and detailed jewelry that demonstrates the remarkable craftsmanship of Hopi silversmiths.
Appliquéis a traditional Native American jewelry style in which a design is cut out of silver and soldered to a base of silver. It was one of the first distinctly Hopi styles that developed in the decades before World War II and was a precursor to the overlay style that is considered to be the Hopi’s signature type of silverwork. Both the appliqué and overlay techniques create highly dimensional and detailed jewelry that represents the remarkable craftsmanship of Native American silversmiths.
Hand Rolled Silver Beads& Navajo Pearls
Creating hand-rolled silver beads, sometimes called “Navajo Pearls,” is a celebrated tradition among Navajo silversmiths and an icon of Navajo jewelry. The artist begins with two flat discs of silver then shapes them into domes using a dapping punch. The halves are soldered together and filed to form a beautiful silver bead. Usually formed from heavy gauge sterling silver, the beads may be smooth, stamped, fluted, slightly flattened or round and polished. Making hand-rolled beads is an extremely labor-intensive process but it creates one of the most beautiful and recognized necklace styles in the world.
Fetishes are small carvings that depict animals or other important Native icons, and Zuni and Pueblo artists have been making them for hundreds of years. In the 1930s, Zuni artists began making smaller versions of their fetishes to accent beaded necklaces. The necklaces were extremely popular and developed into their own form. Today, fetish necklaces are also made by Navajo and Pueblo artists.
Heishi & Beaded Jewelry
Native Americans in the Southwest have been wearing beaded jewelry for centuries. The beaded tradition is most closely associated with Santo Domingo Pueblo, known for creating beautiful shell and gemstone beads by hand. These beads are called “heishi,” which means “shell” in the Santo Domingo language Keres. Necklaces with similar bead styles have been found in the ancient Anasazi sites Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, and heishi may be the oldest form of jewelry in New Mexico. Traditionally, heishi beads are smooth flat discs, but today the term is used to refer to any small beads that are strung together. Making heishi beads by hand is an extremely labor intensive process, and it can take up to two weeks to make a single strand. First, the shell or gemstone is sliced into strips, then clipped by hand into small squares. These unfinished beads are drilled and strung on a fine wire. Next, the artist turns the string of beads against a stone wheel to make them round, further shaping and smoothing with sand paper. Finally, the beads are run against a leather belt to achieve a fine polish. Today, fewer and fewer artists are cutting their beads by hand, making true handmade heishi necklaces an extremely valuable piece for art and jewelry collectors. Today, Native American artists across the Southwest are known for handcrafting beautiful bead necklaces using iconic gemstones like turquoise, coral, jet and spiny oyster shell. Beaded jewelry remains a vibrant form as artists create both traditional pieces and more contemporary styles using non-traditional gemstones, new bead shapes, unexpected color combinations and unique necklace silhouettes.
An icon of Native American jewelry, the concho belt was developed from Plains Indians hair ornaments and Spanish bridle decorations and became a distinctly Navajo form of jewelry. The concho is one of the most widely recognized shapes in Native American jewelry, featuring a silver oval or circle that is stamped with a central radiating design. A concho belt features a number of these silver ornaments along a belt. The first concho belts were made by Navajo silversmiths in the 1870s-1880s. In these early pieces, artisans punched a diamond-shaped opening in each concho and passed the leather belt through this opening. When Navajo silversmiths learned soldering, they were able to attach a loop to the back of a closed concho and thread the belt through these loops, forming the classic concho belt style that we are familiar with today. More than a century after its creation, the concho belt remains one of the most celebrated forms of Native American art, showcasing the artistry and expertise of Native Southwestern silversmiths. The traditional style of wearing concho belts is over layered clothing, often gathering a long blouse or dress. The belt usually falls over the hips, though the wearer can determine exactly where the belt sits most comfortably.
Squash Blossom Necklace
The squash blossom necklace is a bold statement piece that represents a storied legacy of jewelry-making by Native Americans of the Southwest. The central inverted crescent, called a naja, was an ornament that the Spanish used on horse bridles and may have originally come from Moorish designs. Fluted blossoms were another silver ornament used by Spanish and Mexican people to embellish their clothing. Possibly derived from European pomegranate flowers, this decorative shape was called a squash blossom by Navajo silversmiths. Silver beads were introduced to North American by Europeans and by the 19th century had long been prized by the Navajo and other Southwestern Native cultures. When Navajo artisans first learned silversmithing in the 1850s, these beads became a staple of Navajo jewelry. The first squash blossom necklace was created around 1880, blending these three elements into a distinctive and enduring form. Today, the squash blossom necklace is an icon of Native American and Southwestern jewelry and one of the most recognized types of jewelry in the world. Though it is an emblem of Southwestern style, it has been embraced by American fashion designers, making its way into high fashion. One of the most valuable and collected forms of Southwestern Native art, squash blossom necklaces are timeless heirlooms that will be enjoyed for generations.
Use of Turquoise in Native American Jewelry
Turquoise beads have been made in the Southwest for thousands of years. The Anasazi, the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indian tribes, mined turquoise in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Chaco Canyon, a major Anasazi center, was at the center of turquoise trade routes stretching from the Pacific Northwest to Central America. Turquoise was not set in silver until the late 19th century after Navajo and Zuni artisans learned metalsmithing. The blue and green gem quickly became a favorite with Native American silversmiths, and was extremely popular with tourists visiting the Southwest in the early 20th century. Some Native Americans believe the gem was a gift from the spirits and call it the Sky Stone. Today, turquoise is one of the most iconic images of the Southwest and beloved by Native American jewelry artists.
Sleeping Beauty Turquoise
Sleeping Beauty turquoise, mined in Globe, Arizona, is one of the most prized and collected types of turquoise in the word, renowned for its stunning color and remarkable quality. The gem was named Sleeping Beauty because the mountain where it is mined resembles a beautiful woman lying down with her arms crossed. Its color evokes the clear blue skies of the Southwest, a robin’s egg blue with little to no matrix, and it is favored by artists and jewelry makers around the world. Sleeping Beauty is the gem of choice for Zuni jewelers in their iconic cluster designs. Little turquoise is coming out of the mine today, and Sleeping Beauty turquoise has become a very expensive collector’s item. Sleeping Beauty represents the height of natural gemstone beauty and of all types of turquoise it is most associated with fashion, sophistication and couture jewelry design.
Bisbee turquoise is a highly prized turquoise mined in Arizona. Known for its brilliant blue color with brownish red spider web matrix, Bisbee gems are among the highest quality and most expensive turquoises in the world. The mine has been closed for more than 35 years, making Bisbee turquoise extremely rare and treasured by gemstone collectors.
Morenci turquoise is a highly prized turquoise mined in southeastern Arizona that is light to bright blue in color, though some rare high-grade pieces from the mine are extremely dark blue. The mine produces turquoise with a “Birdseye" or "Water Web" matrix pattern as well as gems with an unusual veining of quartz and pyrite that looks silver when polished. The Morenci mine is closed and no longer producing turquoise, making this gemstone difficult to obtain and much sought-after by gemstone and jewelry collectors.
Indian Mountain Turquoise
Indian Mountain Turquoise is a rare and highly prized gem that was mined in northeastern Nevada on the slopes of Bald Mountain. This renowned turquoise deposit was discovered in 1970 by a Shoshone sheepherder and produced very little turquoise in the years it was active. No gemstones have come from this mine in more than two decades, making this type of turquoise an extremely valuable and hard-to-find collector’s item. Indian Mountain is most known for its bluish-green gems with beautiful black spider web veining, though the mine produced gems in a range of colors both green and blue with black and brown matrix. Today Indian Mountain turquoise is considered a classic Southwestern turquoise and can only be found in extremely high-end fine art jewelry.
Native Americans of the Southwest were introduced to coral by the Spanish. For centuries, Native people had been fashioning beads from shells like spiny oyster, and the deep red Mediterranean coral quickly became a prized material. Santo Domingo Pueblo incorporated coral into heishi bead necklaces used for trade or adornment. Hopi, Zuni and Navajo artists used the gem for adornment and in necklaces worn in ceremonial dances. Coral was first set in silver in the late 19th century after the Navajo, Zuni and Pueblo people learned silversmithing. In the 1930s, traders encouraged its use by supplying it to Native artists, particularly the Zuni. Red is a sacred color for the Zuni, and they believe coral brings good luck and longevity to the wearer. Native Americans also consider the gem a sign of wealth and status because of its expense and rarity. Whether used alone or in combination with other valuable gems like turquoise, coral remains one of the iconic gemstones of Native American jewelry in the Southwest.
Kingman turquoise is one of the iconic gemstones of Native American jewelry and a favorite of jewelry collectors around the world. Located in northwest Arizona, Kingman is one of the largest turquoise mines in North America and supplies much of the turquoise used in Native American and Southwestern jewelry. The site has been mined by Native Americans for hundreds of years, and is one of only three prehistoric mining sites that have been found in Arizona. Kingman turquoise became famous in the 1950s for its brilliant blue gems with striking black matrix. The mine also produces blue gems with silver matrix and other shades of blue and green turquoise. Over 95 percent of the turquoise that come out of the mine must be stabilized. The high-grade gems that don’t require stabilization are extremely valuable and among the finest types of turquoise in the world.