Published on February 2, 2013 by Casey
The terms, Native American Jewelry and Indian Jewelry, bring to mind silver and turquoise jewelry created by the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. Artisans from the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Santo Domingo tribes have gained a worldwide reputation for their unique jewelry. Many fine examples of jewelry have also been created by members of other Indian tribes.
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Although Southwestern Indians have worn jewelry and jewelry sets made of pieces of shell, turquoise, coral, and other materials for centuries, Indian jewelry or Native American jewelry didn’t really begin to evolve until the late 1800s. The Navajo Indians were the first to produce jewelry that required the working of metal, and their love of metal working can be traced to the Spanish arrival in the Southwest. The silver bridles and horse trappings of the Spanish conquistadors were admired and often stolen by during Navajo raids. When the area became part of Mexico, the Mexican silversmiths traded jewelry to the Navajo for sheep, and jewelry became a symbol of wealth.
Prior to 1850, a Navajo Medicine Man by the name of Atsidi Sani, convinced a Mexican blacksmith to teach him the art of working iron. Most historians consider him to be the first Navajo Indian to work with metal. There is also existing evidence that he later became the first Navajo to make silver jewelry. Following the Mexican War in 1848, the Southwest became part of the United States. In order to stop Indian raids, the government appointed Kit Carson to subdue the rebellious Navajo.
After the campaign, aimed at destroying the Navajo herds and crops, the starving Indians surrendered. In 1864, approximately 8500 survivors began the “Long Walk”? to imprisonment at Ft. Sumner in New Mexico. Many of the Navajo Indians did not survive the tortuous journey. At Ft. Sumner there was a blacksmith shop and many of the Navajos learned the trade. The first crude Indian jewelry was fashioned out of copper and brass.
In 1868, a peace treaty was signed and the Navajo returned to their homeland. The traders arrived in the area, bringing with them silver coins. The Navajo artisans began to use the coins to make silver jewelry. There were a few traders, including Don Lorenzo Hubbell, who realized the potential for Navajo Jewelry. In 1884, two Mexican silversmiths who were employed by the Hubbell Trading Post were instructed to teach the Navajo people how to solder and work with silver. Between the years of 1884 and 1899, turquoise stones started to appear set in the silver jewelry. This was a natural progression due to the Indians long time love for the stone.
In the early 1870′s, the Zuni Indians learned silversmithing techniques from the Navajo silversmiths. Because the Zuni Indians weren’t nomadic like the Navajo Indians and had permanent homes, they were able to use many tools that the Navajo could not easily carry with them. With the aid of lapidary wheels, they began cutting stones and using the silver to hold their stones in patterns. Today, Zuni silversmiths are known throughout the world for their lapidary skills. Traditional Zuni styles include channel inlay, which uses precisely cut stones set on silver to form figures and designs, and cluster and needlepoint, which requires setting small, similarly cut stones in geometric patterns.
Scholars believe the first Hopi silversmiths learned the craft from a Zuni silversmith because a regular trade route existed between the two Pueblos. Hopi jewelry is most often made without stones. The Hopi Indians are known for their overlay techniques. Overlay involves a design that is cut out of one sheet of silver and then soldered to another sheet as backing. The depressions create designs which are then darkened. Once the overlay is done, the silver is then bent into the form of the pieces of jewelry desired, for example a matching earrings necklace set. The outer layer of the pieces of jewelry is then polished, leaving the design dark. Animals are a large part of the Hopi religion; therefore, animal-like designs and ancient pottery designs are typical themes in Hopi Jewelry.
The Santo Domingo Indians do very little metalworking. For many centuries, they have fashioned necklaces of shell, stone, and wood. Today, they use more modern equipment to work with the same materials in a fine art form. The Santo Domingo Indiansâ jewelry is characterized by the making of round beads from turquoise, shell, coral, and other materials, which are strung together into strands for necklaces and earrings or perhaps a matching Earrings Necklace set. The most popular beads are called heishi. Heishi beads are disks or tubes with a hole in the center that are strung together to form a flexible strand and most often of graduated size. Jewelry such as a matching Earrings Necklace Set is also made be combining pieces of coral or turquoise nuggets strung with the heishi or strands of polished turquoise nuggets.