Published on February 25, 2014 by Amy
American Indian jewelry is known throughout the world for its use of sterling silver and turquoise, a combination appreciated, worn and collected for more than one hundred years. Turquoise holds a special allure in the Southwest where it was also linked to maize and status. Below A Navajo Native American warrior proudlywears a silver and turquoise Indian necklace, 1890.
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American Indian Jewelry has been found in excavations of prehistoric ruins. Bead making is an ancient craft. Bead necklaces are often called heishe, (see heishe necklace above right), from the Santo Domingo word for shell. Seashells are commonly used to make beads. Oyster Shell, Mother of Pearl, Abalone, Conch and Clam have been important trade items in the Southwest for over 1,000 years.
American Indians are known worldwide for their beautiful turquoise jewelry, which usually includes silver, especially the Navajo. See 1900 “squash blossom” Indian necklace below left, and a Navajo Indian silversmith at work in 1900 below right.
Native beadwork was already extremely advanced in pre-Columbian times, including the fine grinding of turquoise, coral, and shell beads into smooth heishi necklaces, the delicate carving of individual wood and
bone beads, the soaking and piecing of porcupine quills, and the intricate stitching of thousands of beads together.
However, the use of tiny glass seed beads that are popularly associated with American Indians, was not introduced into jewelry making until the 19th century. Seagoing fur traders appeared on the Oregon and Washington coasts and began trading glass seed beads to various tribes, who incorporated them into their jewelry and clothing designs.
Imported Czech seed beads have been the favored medium among many Indian artists for centuries
now, as shown in the jewelry pendant above.
Most Native American Indian tribes use Sterling Silver in their jewelry making, but it was not introduced until the 1800s. Hopi and Pueblo artists learned silver-making from the Spanish making silver Indian jewelry blossoms in the Southwest.
Sterling Silver is 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper. Silver is very soft so copper is added which makes it malleable.
Many southwest Indian tribes have been making bead jewelry since ancient times, using the natural elements around them, such as seashells, turquoise, jet and coral.
Native American Indian jewelry making skills are taught from one generation to the next and families take pride in continuing the traditions of excellence and a sense of pride in themselves, their Indian culture, and fostering American Indian tribal identity.