Jewelry plays a key role in Native American culture, conveying stories, preserving history, and symbolizing spiritual beliefs and traditions that encompass all North American tribes.
12,000 years ago jewelry making was born from the local cultures of their respective regions. Each unique design was composed of natural materials found in its surroundings to create truly one-of-a-kind pieces.
By negotiating the necessary materials, Native American tribes were able to create exquisite jewelry with slight variations in design. Over time, jewelry making evolved into a delicate art form that is still treasured by many tribal cultures today.
Read our guide to learn about the history of Native American jewelry and what pieces are unique to each tribe. From the tools used to make them to the meaning behind each design, find out everything you need to know about Native American jewelry.
Important jewelry from Native American tribes
Below are a few examples of pieces from different tribes to help you get started on your own Native American jewelry journey.
The Hopi use traditional baskets and ceramic symbols on their silver coverings and appliques. Her jewelry is unique in the high luster of the silver and the deep, intricate overlay work.
Here are some examples of Hopi jewelry:
Overlay technique with water symbols. A great example of ceramic symbols turned into jewelry.
This is an example of contemporary work, no symbols, just simple jewelry and a beautiful stone.
The tiny Hopi Longhair Katsinam, as well as the Pueblo and Rain Clouds are examples of extreme detail in the overlay work. The Hopi master this technique.
Navajo silverware was modeled after the beautiful harnesses worn by the Spaniards, and Fred Harvey later bought Navajo stamps to embellish his silverware. You can see this pattern on shell belts, cobra pendants, bank account and pumpkin flower necklaces.
Here are some examples of Navajo jewelry:
A classic example of a carved shell with a large stone in the centre.
Sand casting is an ancient technique that the Navajo mastered. Here, too, one can see the influence of the shells used by the Spaniards.
Pumpkin Flower Necklace
Traditional Navajo gourd flower with foliage and handmade beads. This Navajo piece uses large natural turquoise stones and distinctive silverwork.
The Naja trailer
One of the earliest forms of jewelry, molded directly from Spanish harness. This design was intended to prevent the evil eye of both horse and rider.
The Santo Domingo are known for their mosaic work and tiny Heishe beads. These hand-cut, drilled and polished shells and stone beads are coveted by collectors. Santo Domingo jewelers still use wood and shell to encase many of their beautiful inlaid pieces. They use sterling silver to package and protect some of their pieces and even use them as spacers in some of their mosaics.
These are some examples of jewelry from Santo Domingo:
This healing hand pendant features turquoise and coral embedded in the shell and then encased in sterling silver.
This beautiful four strand necklace is crafted from hand cut New Lander stones and coral and finished with sterling silver balls attached to large pendants. The charms are made from sterling silver corn stalks surrounded by inlaid New Lander and Sleeping Beauty turquoise and apple coral in a mother of pearl shell. The back of the shell is covered with a corn stalk. This exceptional necklace can be worn long or doubled and worn shorter.
The Zuni create beautifully detailed work on their clusters using much smaller stones than the Navajo, their pieces are called petit-point or needlepoint. The Zuni are also famous for their fetish sculptures, animal spirits central to Zuni life. The animals can be carried in a bag, placed on an altar, displayed, or worn on a necklace. These fetish necklaces are coveted by collectors. The animals are beautifully carved and the pinshell spacers are hand cut and polished. Each piece of the necklace, usually several strands, is made by hand.
Here are some examples of Zuni jewelry:
sun face (aunt)
Sunface represents one of the most powerful celestial beings and plays an important role in Zuni culture. The stones that make up this piece include Mother of Pearl - intuition and imagination, Jet - Mother Earth, Coral - protection and comfort, and Turquoise - unity between the physical and the spiritual.
This older piece was made from handmade shell, turquoise and silver beads. The birds are all hand cut from spiny oysters separated with needle shells and natural turquoise nuggets.
This older piece was made from Mediterranean coral or apple wood. This is an example of embroidered stone carvings.
This is an example of petit point work. These are smaller stones and can be cut into a variety of shapes.
A brief history of Native American jewelry
When we think of Native American jewelry, the first thing that comes to mind is turquoise. This beautiful blue and green stone has fascinated people around the world, from the Egyptians (more than 6,000 years ago); in Tibet and China (more than 7,000 years ago); in Persia, modern-day Iran, (more than 4,000 years ago). Turquoise was used as personal adornment and as currency. Turquoise can be found all over the world and is coveted in all cultures.
It was here in the Southwest in the mid-16th century that the Spanish discovered that the peoples of New Mexico and Arizona used turquoise for jewelry and trade. The turquoise used was pierced and hung from the earlobes with thread or made into beads to be worn as necklaces. Some of the pieces were supported with wood, shells or bones and set in a mosaic using fir resin as glue. The aborigines also traded and used brass or copper, but only as metal plates or ingots.
Fast forward to the 1850s when a Navajo blacksmith (Atsidi Sani) learned goldsmithing from a Mexican. He used the ironwork patterns found on Spanish thumbtacks to stamp the shell belts and plain silver cuffs. Native Americans obtained silver for their jewelry by melting down United States coins. When the federal government made counterfeiting illegal, he melted down Mexican pesos. It was another 30 years before the craft spread and the Navajo and later the Zuni began to work with turquoise and other stones set in silver. This began when the desire for Native American jewelry grew.
This was largely thanks to Fred Harvey, who in the late 1800s organized "Indian Detours" to show Eastern Railroad tourists the Native American way of life and the beautiful jewelry they made. Fred Harvey also gave goldsmiths the punches to make patterns on their jewelry. These stamps would usher in a style of jewelry making that has lasted to this day.
Not all tribes worked with silver; It was expensive to get the tools and get started. The Zuni and Navajo had merchants working with the federal government who would provide them with the necessary tools and then receive jewelry as payment. This was not an option for Hopi or Santo Domingo artists who did not have access to the same programs. The Hopi only began working in silver in the 1900s.
The residents of Santo Domingo kept their roots and are still known today for their mosaic work and small Heishe beads. These hand-cut, drilled and polished shells and stone beads are coveted by collectors. Santo Domingo jewelers still use wood and shell to encase many of their beautiful inlaid pieces. The tribal differences seen in jewelry today took time to develop, and it was not until the late 1930s that the Coltons, who founded the Museum of Northern Arizona, wanted the Hopi, who have the fewest goldsmiths of any tribe, would develop their own distinctive jewelry. . .
Using Hopi basket, pottery, and weaving designs, jewelry designs were created that would set the Hopi apart.
After World War II, when soldiers returned to the Hopi, this distinctive style took shape. The veterans' lessons in goldsmithing led artists to create appliques and layered designs that would form the basis of today's Hopi jewelry. Recognizing the various tribal differences in jewelry takes time and exposure to the artists, their culture and their craft.
Types of Native American Jewelry
The first bolo ties were made in the 1930s when Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo men wore large bandanas around their necks that were tied together with thread and then secured with hollow bones, beads, or shells. the first slices of cake. Bowling goes by many names including slider ties, cowboy ties, gaucho ties, and neckties. Since the 1930's there have been changes to the bolo tie and it has fallen out of style, always a staple for Native Americans and others who love this Native American art form.
Bracelets - cuffs
Handcuffs as personal adornment and as bow protection have been used since Egyptian times. Native Americans progressed from simple leather shackles tied around the wrists to prevent the bowstring from injuring their skin, to elaborate stone carvings made of stamped or overlaid silver or even gold. From practical archers to representations of personal status, floral cuffs worn in pairs to simple accessories, Native Americans have created an art form that reflects tribal histories and fine artistic skill.
Large ornate buckles were used by the military in Europe in the 17th century. These buckles came to North America with the Spanish and, like the seashells, were something that Native Americans adopted and adapted for themselves. Over time, the buckles have become a wonderful art space for the Native American silversmith to not only show their talent but also to express cultural values. Considering the stone carving, detailed overlaying and embossing, each piece is a true work of art.
Both men and women have always worn earrings as a status symbol. The shell, turquoise and other stones were hand drilled and then strung on strings. When Native Americans mastered goldsmithing, they began making fine threads of silver and wrapping them around their earlobes. Earrings ranged from a simple stone or slab of brass, copper or silver to intricately stamped or stoned or beautiful metal or stone beads on wires or French posts. Earrings can be small details or long, loose pieces seen on powwow dancers.
Necklaces are a classic form of personal jewelry and status. From simple stone or shell pendants on leather or cord to beautiful handcrafted pumpkin flower necklaces, the embellishments are unique. Native American art really shines in the necklaces. Not only do they use the symbols of their culture, but they also put these symbols in a beautiful design to enjoy.
Traditionally, Native Americans did not wear pins, although they took parts of necklaces or flowers from bracelets or cuffs and made pins or brooches for the collector or tourism. Pendants served as personal adornment and spiritual protection as well as status symbols for Native Americans, and today have a place in the collectors' market. These pieces can be simple bone or stone pierced on rope or leather, or beautifully crafted signature pendants worn on a necklace or bracelet.
Native Americans wore rings in ceremonies and as a status symbol. They were everything from simple bones to elaborate metalwork set with stones. There are a lot of interchanges of tribal styles with rings. The Navajo create rings with patterns, leaves and silver balls, and inlaid bands, just like the Zuni. There are many goldsmiths who make the same ring style in different sizes, or individual "showpiece" rings.
Where to buy authentic Native American jewelry?
When it comes toNative American jewelry, each piece is unique and conveys a different story, design and culture. Wondering where to buy authentic Native American jewelry? Discover your perfect piece of jewelery from the wide selection of original Native American-designed necklaces, earrings, rings, bracelets, bolo ties, safety pins and charms at Kachina House. You will be mesmerized by our wide range and the beauty and meaning of the designs.