“One who sees a turquoise early in the morning will pass a fortunate day” – Native American Indian proverbMost Native American Indian jewelry is from the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Santo Domingo and other Rio Grande Pueblo tribes. All reside in the southwest USA region located in Arizona and New Mexico.
Native American Indians have, as have most people, produced jewelry for their adornment for many years. Archaeological “digs” have unearthed jewelry composed of shell, turquoise and other materials dating from centuries ago. Jewelry we commonly recognize as being derived from the Native American Indians began nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. The Navajo were the first southwest Indians to craft jewelry from metal. The Spanish introduced silver bridles, horse adornments and other fancy articles of metal with their arrival in the southwest. These items were admired, stolen or traded for by the Navajos. Trading their sheep and rugs for jewelry, these coveted items became symbols of wealth and status.
Circa 1850, Atsidi Sani, a Navajo medicine man, was taught the art of working metal by a Mexican smith. Atsidi Sani is considered to be the first Navajo smith and was also the first to begin using silver. He was said to have taught this early silversmith craft to his four sons.
Due to the raiding ways of the Navajo, Kit Carson, after a long campagn, rounded up these people in 1864. Fort Sumner, New Mexico was their place of incarceration from 1864-1868 where many learned the craft of metalwork.
Returning back to their homeland in 1868, traders came to the Navajo area bringing silver coins. This was the supply for the first known silver jewelry. A few traders had the foresight to envision a potential for better goods and thus brought in more Mexican silversmiths to teach the trade to Native American Indians. Obtaining this knowledge, the Navajos began to solder silver and add turquoise stones to their jewelry. Turquoise was the natural choice due to the local mines and the long love affair southwestern Native American Indians have had with this stone.
Through the years the Navajo style jewelry has continued to evolve, strongly influenced by what was salable to the retail market. Traders, early through present day, have been the major impulse for this thrust toward better craftsmanship.
Navajo jewelry is characterized by an emphasis on silver and silverwork accented by turquoise stones. The silverwork is designed around the natural shape of stones with added leaves, feathers, stamp work and silver raindrops.
The Zuni Pueblo Native American Indians reside south of the Navajo where they have lived for hundreds of years. The Zuni were taught the art of silversmithing by the Navajo in the early 1870’s. Pueblo people with permanent homes, the Zuni were able to create and utilize more tools unlike the nomadic Navajo who were forced to carry their possessions. Consequently, Zuni jewelry evolved into a much different form than their Navajo neighbor’s. The emphasis on Zuni jewelry is focused on stonework. The Zunis are the lapidarians – they meticulously cut their stones to fit into pre-cut designs of silver. This may be evidenced in the form of many individual sets of tiny pieces of stone or in the distinctive stone-on-stone mosaic style inlay work.
A regular trade route to the north and west existed between the Zuni Pueblo and the Hopi Pueblo where the Hopis have resided for more than 1,000 years. Zuni silversmiths assiduously taught their craft to the Hopi. Early Hopi jewelry was not recognizable from early Navajo and early Zuni, all three being similar. The Hopi also did not have the traders encouraging their crafts as did the Navajo and Zuni. Circa 1930, with encouragement from the university at Flagstaff, Arizona, the Hopi developed a style characterized by an almost total lack of stones. Designs are first hand cut into a sheet of silver and then soldered onto an uncut sheet of silver with the resulting “overlay” design accented by etching and oxidation. Many ancient pottery and animal designs are included in this manner.
The Santo Domingo, another pueblo people, reside to the east alongside the Rio Grande River, a little south of Santa Fe. Little silverwork is done here as this pueblo has a long tradition of rolled stonework called “heishi.” This jewelry, characterized by round and/or tubular beads of differing coral and turquoise shells, is artfully strung into necklaces. Heishi is known for its many striking varieties and variations.
Turquoise, the “skystone,” is a cuprous aluminum phosphate. The shades of blues and greens are determined by the varying amounts of copper content. The stone was formed by the proper compositions settling into cracks and voids in other rocks. These deposits hardened into turquoise, the surrounding rock running “fingers” into the turquoise, creates the matrix we see in the finished jewelry.
Turquoise is hard but somewhat porous. Consequently, care should be taken to keep the stone from being exposed to oils, soaps, greases and chemicals as these compounds can cause color change in the turquoise. In fact, it’s the contact with body oils that give old turquoise pieces their “patina” so highly sought.
We hope you will appreciate the handcrafted nature of Native American Indian jewelry, a true American jewelry, utilizing the formidable skystone made of earth, wind, sea and a sprinkling of spirits!