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Native American Jewelry History

Native American Indian Jewelry has been found in excavations of prehistoric ruins. Bead making is an ancient craft. Bead necklaces are often called heishe, from the Santo Domingo word for shell. Seashells are the most common material used for beads. Seashells used in Native American Jewelry are Spiny Oyster Shell, Mother of Pearl, Abalone, Conch and Clam. They have been important trade items in the Southwest for over 1,000 years.

Native American Jewelry using silver work is not an ancient art. It was learned from the Mexican Silversmiths in the 1850s. Mexican Silversmiths would trade their Silver Trinkets for cattle from the Navajo. This association would lead the Navajo Blacksmiths to learn the art of Silver making. Navajo sand casting is one of the oldest silver working techniques among the Navajo. The Navajo Indians traded their jewelry with Zuni Indians for livestock. One of the Navajo early silversmiths taught the Zuni the art of silversmithing around 1872. Later a Zuni silversmith taught the Hopi silversmithing around 1890. The Native American Artists never mined the silver used in making their jewelry.

Native American Indian Jewelry Styles

Each Native American Indian Tribe has their own unique style of jewelry making. Although over the years various artists from the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Santo Domingo have made jewelry that is not considered a style from their tribe.

The Zuni Indian Jewelry techniques include mosaic, channel inlay, cluster, needlepoint and petit point using a variety of stones and shells.

The Navajo Indian Jewelry Artists are famous for their Squash Blossom Necklaces. Navajo Jewelry Artists use larger pieces of turquoise, coral and other stones surrounded by distinctive scrolls, beads and leaf patterns made of sterling silver. Navajo's are the largest producers of Native American jewelry.

The Hopi Indian Silversmiths use the overlay technique with infrequent use of stones in their jewelry. Making jewelry with the overlay technique involves sawing the design out of one sheet of silver and then overlaying it on a second sheet to which it is then sweated or soldered. The background is oxidized to darken it with the top layer of the jewelry polished.

The Santo Domingo Indians have been making bead jewelry since ancient times. They use Seashells, Turquoise, Jet and Coral in their jewelry. Our featured Santo Domingo Artists are members of the Palace of the Governors program located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They are held to strict standards in making their jewelry such as Heishi beads must be cut, drilled and ground by hand. This is a painstaking process: a single necklace may require the fashioning of hundreds of tiny beads.

All of the Native American Indian Tribes use Sterling Silver in their jewelry. Sterling Silver is 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper. Silver is very soft so copper is added which makes it malleable.

The American Southwest is home to the various Native American Indian Tribes that make our beautiful jewelry.

The Navajo Indian Nation is located in the northern portion of Arizona and New Mexico. It is the largest reservation. The Hopi Indian Reservation is located in Arizona. The Santo Domingo Pueblo is located in New Mexico. The Zuni pueblo is located in New Mexico.

Native American Jewelry making skills are taught from one generation to the next. There are also a variety of schools to learn Native American Jewelry making skills. However, families take pride in continuing the traditions of artist excellence and a sense of pride in themselves and their culture.


In the beginning it was enough to know which tribe made the Native American Jewelry. Later Native American Jewelry Artists started marking their jewelry with their initials. The stamps used to mark the jewelry are handed down from one generation to the next so the initials may be their parents or grandparents.

By Donna Bunnell