History of Native American Jewelry

The History of Native American Jewelry is rooted in the culture and people living through the American southwest. Peoples of the world have all made jewelry and adornments of some kind and the Indians of the southwest were no different. Certain historical processes have given American Indian jewelry a strong presence in today’s modern style. The use of Turquoise is by far the most influential aspect of ancient Indian jewelry used in modern western fashion. Archaeological evidence supports the theory that stones, which include turquoise, shells, and carved fetishes, predate the Christian epoch. Turquoise that was found in Hohokam excavations in southern Arizona has dated back to 200 B.C. Even older in central Mexico, approximately 600-700 B.C., and in South America about 900 B.C.

Native American Jewelry has a unique past. Knowing that story is the key to understanding the Indian jewelry styles of today. Native Americans started making silver jewelry in the late 1800’s when the Spaniards came, making jewelry, ornaments for their horses and trinkets for barter. But the Indian jewelry made before this time provided the foundation for their own style. Although the tribes and their styles vary, some common themes persist. There is significant evidence of beaded Turquoise jewelry. Turquoise and shell, paired with feathers would be strung and hung from every place possible. Yarn, leather, and sinew were woven into patterns and incorporated into necklaces, bracelets and clothing with the stones and shell. Other unique, beautiful items from nature would be included as much as possible. In Arizona this jewelry dates back over 2300 years, during the Hohokam era. Metal was rare but not out of the picture entirely. Some archaeologists suggest gold and silver was worked by certain tribes in North America during this ancient time but its use would have been limited. Gold and Silver was worked by the Native peoples of Mexico and Central America since the time of the Aztec, so its possible Native American tribes living in the southwest region could be aware of metal working in some way much earlier than the Spanish arrival. It is even difficult to put a date on just when the Native Americans started making silver jewelry after the Spanish arrival. Some authorities will say the 1870’s some the 1890’s.

During World War II, money was hard to come by for the Native American whose income at the time was less than $300 a year on the reservation. Turquoise was scarce and very expensive, so petrified wood was used because it was readily available and the Native American could find it on the reservation. Cutting was difficult in those days. They had to use hammers to flake off the petrified wood and then grind it with an old hand cranked grinding wheel. Polishing was the most difficult because electricity was not available. The silversmiths would hone the stone down on a piece of buckskin with wood-ash grit, and the finishing polish was done by using natural facial oils and rubbing it on pants for hours to achieve a sheen. Even then it was dull. These are some of the old methods that were used and certainly not to be laughed at just because they were crude and primitive. It was at that time that they were first coming into the “new jewelry”. Over the past 40 years there has been “new art” out of the “old art”.

Semi-Precious Stones

If you look at the Native American Jewelry received by museums forty-five years ago, then look at the pieces they are receiving today, you will see that there has been an improvement in the quality in Native American jewelry all along the lines. The Navajo technique used both hammered silver and heavy clustered turquoise. This was probably the earliest recorded concept in jewelry design. Now the Navajo have progressed into finer pieces where they have highly cut stones and cabochons.

There are people today who say that a lot of the stones are by non Native American. This really doesn’t make that much difference since most other jewelry makers around the world do not cut their own diamonds and emeralds. Another thing, there is not electricity on all parts of the reservation. Therefore, for Native American to continue making jewelry, and since the general public demands high quality, Native Americans do buy a lot of pre-cut turquoise. There are many good stones today, however, that are cut by very fine Native American Artists.

History of Native American Jewelry & Powers of Turquoise

There are many legends about Turquoise; The Pima consider it to bring good fortune and strength and believe that it helps overcome illness. The Zuni believe that blue turquoise was male and of the sky and green turquoise was female and of the earth. Pueblo Indians thought that its color was stolen from the sky. In Hopi legend the lizard who travels between the above and the below, excretes turquoise and that the stone can hold back floods. The Apache felt that turquoise on a gun or bow made it shoot straight. The Navajo consider it as good fortune to wear and believe it could appease the Wind Spirit.

History of Coral in Native American Jewelry

There are four types of precious coral in Hawaii: black coral (Antipathidae), gold coral (Parazoanthidae), red or pink coral (Corallidae) and bamboo coral. Each of these has a different internal composition. Red and pink corals produce a calcite skeleton similar in hardness to ivory and pearls. Bamboo corals, on the other hand, produce a skeleton composed partially of calcite and partially of protein that is similar to the keratin in your fingernails. These alternating bands of material resemble a bamboo stalk; thus the corals’ name. In Hawaii, black corals are found in 100-300 ft. of water, shallow enough to harvest using scuba equipment. Many harvesters, however, have died in pursuit of coral trees at the deep end of this range. Red, gold and bamboo coral are found between 1,000 and 1,500 ft; so harvesting is conducted with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) or submarines.


There fewer silversmiths coming along now than there were fifty years ago. This is caused by industry coming onto the reservations and assimilating Native Americans into the mainstream of American society. Native Americans go off to variuos metropolitan areas and work in factories and do other things to earn more money.

The traditional Native American silversmith can no longer be stereotyped. He/she has branched out into many avenues of jewelry making. They have done a very fine artistic job of this.

Note: Of the 1.2 million Native Americans in the USA today only about 25,000 are silversmiths.

Old Pawn Jewelry

Some people like to compare “old pawn” with the jewelry being made today. They say “Old pawn” is better than new jewelry.” It’s a matter of taste. Some of the techniques being used today are far superior to the techniques that were used in the past. Now we make highly refined items, beautifully decorated with polished turquoise and other precious stones, even using diamonds, rubies, emeralds, star saphires, ivory, coral, onyxLapisObsidian, and iron wood from Southwern Arizona just to name a few.

The aesthetic quality of Navajo and Pueblo silver jewelry is responsible for its fame. Whether the jewelry is based on ancestral tradition or owes its origins to Spanish, Mexican or Plains Indians roots, or to a combination of these sources, at its finest, it possesses a rich artistic integrity and imagination. The wonderful variety of design on beaten silver, often combined with an extraordinary profusion of turquoise stones of all shades, colors and textures emerges in the hands of Navajo and Pueblo artists as strikingly strong and beautiful in pattern and design. Motifs abstracted from nature – suns, flowers, leaves, petals, stars and moons – are represented in a wide variety of powerful forms and special relationships. For the complexity of design, the jewelry manages to have a sense of order and simplicity. The maker puts his own interpretations into the piece and at the same time uses designs which have special meanings or symbols that have come down through the generations. Indian jewelry holds its place and fascination in the world today as it goes beyond mere ornament and makes a forceful, imaginative and meaningful statement of a creative people.

The hidden meaning phenomenon in the Pueblo and Navajo world is characterized by both visible outer forms and hidden, or inner, qualities. “The tendency toward ‘hiddenness’ in the material world of the Pueblo Indians is there now and may have been from time immemorial.” observed writer Ian Thompson. “I have encountered numerous instances in the archaeological record where something I thought was created for the public was, in fact, hidden from view from the moment the act of creation was completed. It may be connected to ‘understated sacredness’ in the Puebloan cosmos.”

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