Published on March 13, 2014 by Amy
Jewelry design differs among Native American Indian tribes, but the differences are more subtle than with other arts and crafts because the materials used to create jewelry are so similar. Native beadwork remains strong today, as do the fusion jewelry designs created out of colonial influences. Deriving from many sources, Native American Indian jewelry design was significant in many ways in the 1600s.
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As with much of Native American Indian artwork, designs and symbol used in jewelry come from many sources. Some designs have imaginative names like rattlesnake jaws, thunderbird tracks or medicine man’s eye. Others have more straightforward names like mountain range, tipi, fence, sun’s rays, running water or headdress.
Native beadwork design included the fine grinding of coral, shell beads and turquoise into smooth “heishi” necklaces and the soaking and piercing of porcupine quills. It involved the delicate carving of individual bone and wood beads, and the intricate stitching together of thousands of beads. Porcupine quillwork has almost died out (though some young artists are beginning to take interest in it), but all the other beadwork forms continue to have a strong presence in the southwestern part of the United States. Many Native American Indian artists of 2009 prefer to design jewelry using imported Czech seed beads.
Before Europeans arrived, native metalwork consisted solely of hammering and etching copper into earrings or pendants and designing silver and copper into beads. When Navajo, Pueblo and Hopi artists learned silversmithing from Spanish colonialists in the 1800s, incorporating metal into jewelry became very popular. In the southwestern United States, distinctive Native American jewelry designs like Hopi silver overlay bracelets, Navajo turquoise inlay rings and squash blossom necklaces developed out of the fusion of traditional designs with the new techniques.
Aside from serving aesthetic purposes, Native American Indian jewelry design had many economic, political, religious and social implications for Native Americans in the 1600s. The design of your jewelry back then indicated what family, political group or tribe you belonged to. Beads validated treaties and were used for currency and exchange as well as to remember oral traditions. There were also many bead and pendant designs that were used in religious dance, sacrifice and curing ritual ceremonies.
If you are interested in purchasing Native American jewelry designs, keep in mind that it can be difficult to discriminate between handcrafted jewelry and those that are machine made. Sometimes even experts are tricked into believing imitation jewelry designs made in Taiwan or the Philippines are real. The Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA) was created in 1974 to establish common standards for the industry. See Resources below for tips IACA has published to assist jewelry consumers. One way to know if the jewelry design you wish to purchase is authentic is to ask the person selling it about the tribal affiliation and techniques of the artist who created the piece.