The History of American Indian Jewelry


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Indian jewelry, as it is known today, had origins that probably predate the advent of the persons we describe as American Indians or Native Americans. However, for the purpose of this paper we will consider prehistoric man as prehistoric Indian. Archeological evidence shows us that stones (including turquoise), shells and fetishes predate the Christian (epoch). Turquoise was found in Hohokam excavations in southern Arizona that date 200 B.C., in central Mexico approximately 600-700 B.C. and in South America ca. 900 B.C. Other beads are even earlier. As Indian jewelry and turquoise jewelry are so closely associated this paper will discuss both.

Turquoise as a mineral deposit is isolated to a rather limited geographical area in the southwestern United States. Some is found in Mexico but very little and there are some deposits in western South America. We will concentrate on that found in the United States.

Prehistoric Indians mined turquoise and turned this product into jewelry, primarily drilled beads and other hanging ornaments. However, archeological findings do include applique on shell and other rock which means that it was probably used with wood for ear decoration as well (the wood would have deteriorated.) Extensive evidence of prehistoric mining operations have been found in several areas to include: The Cerillos and Burro Mountain regions of New Mexico, the Kingman and Morenci regions of Arizona and the Conejos area of Colorado. Turquoise jewelry found in southern Mexico and in excavated mounds east of the Mississippi have been analyzed and proclaimed to be from New Mexico's Cerillos mining area. As this article deals with our Southwest other mining localities are not discussed.

Turquoise, although dominant in the jewelry finds (for example several thousand pieces of turquoise were found in Chaco Canyon), it is not the only important jewelry find. The spiny oyster shell (Spondylus Princeps) is found in only one area in the Western Hemisphere- off the coast of Baja California. This shell has been found in abundance in archeological excavations of the Anasazi, Mogollon and Hohokam of the desert southwest. It has also been found in the same eastern mound excavations in which turquoise was also found. These finds not only prove early man and prehistoric man's interest and use of jewelry but it reveals important economic information. It shows the existence of trading in his lifestyle. It also provides a glimpse into probable status levels of the people.

One might argue that the above has little to do with the development of Indian jewelry as we know it. However, as some (the Hopi and Pueblo cultures of the Rio Grande) are indeed descended from the Anasazi and many believe from the Mogollon and Mimbres as well, it seems to be a valid beginning of a historic tracing. The Navajo, on the other hand, entered the area fairly recently. Some say as early as the 14th century, others, as late as the early 16th. The Navajo, whenever they arrived, had to be influenced by the existing Pueblo cultures and later were profoundly influenced by the early Spanish. It is the hypothesis of this writer that a study of the Navajo will give one the best historical trial for the development of Indian jewelry in the Southwest. The Navajo, as we will see, were instrumental in the spread of this craft to other southwestern tribes.

The Navajo must be considered nomadic within their "Dinetah" or homeland. They were farmers only to the extent that they would plant a crop, leave it to the vagaries of the weather and eventually return to reap the harvest, if any. They and their Apache cousins could be likened to the early Mongols of the 12th and 13th centuries. They not only raided but also took, kept and developed that of the conquered that suited them. Beaded necklaces as a symbol of prestige, decorated "ketoh" or bow guards and concha (concho) likely originated with their most frequent contacts, the Spanish and their Pueblo neighbors.

The Navajo were in constant contact, some hostile, some friendly, with the Spanish as they continued to populate the Southwest from the late 16th century on. From these people the Indians developed a great appreciation for personal adornment. Some of the early Spanish designs such as the Moorish inspired crescent and the pomegranate blossom became key to Navajo jewelry design (More on this later in the discussion of the origin of the Squash Blossom Necklace.)

In time the Spanish became dominant in the area. Although raids continued into the 19th century, the period was better described as one of "suspicious-cautious co- existence." It was a 200 plus year period of close association and the sharing of the best of the several cultures. The Navajo wore the ornaments of those they conquered or from trade with those they could not beat. These were made from German silver (a copper-nickel-zinc substance) that was bright and wore well, to copper, brass and to a much lesser extent, silver. They learned to appreciate and hold dear the symbols of their prowess or their wealth. (No doubt early Navajo wearing of a cross or the crescent shaped naja on a rawhide necklace did not reflect their appreciation for Christianity or for the Moorish influence on the Spanish.) Rather it was simply an ornament of beauty and pride. And, if one person had one, others wanted one also and if possible, something even better. Thus the pendent cross evolved as did the naja into a multitude of variations and blendings. The simple thong on which they were displayed gave way to stone, shell, silver or other metal beads.

The studies regarding the actual date that the Navajo began making Sterling silver jewelry vary. The two best works are by John Adair and subsequent research and writings by Carl Rosnek and Joseph Stacy (see suggested reading list.) All seem to agree that Atsidi Sani (Old Smith) was the accepted first Navajo silversmith. He learned the blacksmith trade in the early 1850's and possibly even dabbled in silver in the early 1860's.

After much warfare, the warlike Navajo were captured by the United States Cavalry and marched into captivity in 1864. Approximately 8000, to include Atsidi Sani, were sent to Ft. Sumner in eastern New Mexico where they were to be weaned from a nomadic and warlike lifestyle and taught to be farmers. The experiment failed and in 1868 they were returned to the four corners area, the "Dinetah." Although this date 1868 is accepted by many, to include the great Navajo leader of the time, Chee Dodge, as the year Atsidi Sani learned the silver making skills, there is evidence that this is not wholly correct. There is a tantalizing comment by a Major Henry Wallen, the Commandant of Ft. Sumner in 1864. "Some of them are quite clever as silversmiths." Of course he may have mistaken German silver for "real silver." In any event Atsidi Sani wears the mantle as the first Navajo silversmith.

The early Navajo silver work concentrated on concha (concho) belts, bracelets, bow guards, tobacco flasks and necklaces. Rings, earrings, pins, hair ornaments, buckles and bolos evolved from these. A full line of silver jewelry existed throughout the reservation by the 1880's.

The earliest Navajo work consisted of hammered work with file decoration. Turquoise, a very popular and much respected stone by the Navajo, made its appearance in Sterling silver jewelry ca. 1880. It is important to note that turquoise, as a jewelry item, had existed for centuries. It had been used in combination with other stones, shells and metals long before 1880. However, the early Indian glued or otherwise attached the turquoise to the stone, shell or metal. It is known that Mexican silversmiths (plateros) toured the Indian pueblos and Navajo enclaves in the early-mid 1800's selling and trading silver jewelry for Indian products. This is the likely origin of silver ornamentation in the Indian possession prior to ca. 1860. It is fairly certain that there was no indigenous Navajo or pueblo silver industry.

Early Navajo silversmiths used Mexican and US coins for their silver. Often if they were given a special order from a trader or local rancher or businessman they would receive silver in the form of candlesticks, tea pots, etc. to melt for their work. The Navajo preferred to use melted Mexican silver coins as they were the easiest to work (.90275 fine.) Next preferred was what ever sterling silver was available (.9025 fine.) Least desirable but the most durable was silver from melted US coins (.900 fine.) The latter was the most readily available source. In 1890 the United States made it unlawful to melt of deface (such as soldering on hooks, eyes, jump rings or "doming" coins for beads.) As this was difficult to enforce, United States coinage continued to be used in the developing Navajo silver industry. Now that there was a demand for materials and tools the reservation traders began to stock many of the needed items. Although the Navajo were able to make a flux out of native materials, the commercial flux was superior. Cutting, grinding and fine polishing materials were commercially more desirable than home made ones. This was the beginning of a new economy involving the Indians, traders and eastern suppliers.

Very shortly, following Atsidi Sani's beginning Navajo silversmithing, the craft spread across the area. He taught his sons and they taught others. The craft made its appearance in Zuni ca. 1872. Atsidi Chon (Ugly Smith) taught his close Zuni friend, Lanyade, the skills. The Zuni were already skilled in metal working making items in copper, brass and iron. Research shows that a forge existed in Zuni in 1852. It is reported (see Rosneck and Stacy) that Lanyade paid Atsidi Chon "one good horse" for his instruction.

Lanyade learned the trade well. He began touring the various pueblos selling his Indian jewelry. While on Hopi First Mesa at Sichomovi, he taught the first Hopi silversmith, Sikyatala, the skills. As Lanyade was taught by a Navajo and the Hopi taught by Lanyade all the Sterling Silver jewelry of the period was Navajo in style. As a side note this is why provenance (history of origin-ownership) is so important for 19th century indian jewelry in properly identifying its origin. It's too easy to say that because it looks like Navajo work it is therefore of Navajo origin.

During these early years the use of solder was learned and developed. Accompanying this was the skills of making silver dies. The former permitted the artistic and permanent joining of two or more metal pieces resulting in a multitude of design possibilities and the setting of stones. Die making was probably adopted from the many leather tooling dies that existed and were used by Spanish, Mexican and later Indians in both leather work as well as tin smithing.

As the years progressed the styles that were basically of Navajo origin were gradually modified by their pueblo students. For example: the Zuni, since prehistoric times, were excellent lapidaries. These skills slowly changed their work to the fine inlay and channel inlay we have come to associate with them. However, the Hopi change occurred a bit more abruptly. In 1938 the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona, working with Hopi silversmiths, Paul Saufkie and Fred Kabote, began a program of developing a style that was exclusively Hopi. The work was interrupted by World War II. Following the war a government grant helped a silversmith training program with the Hopi Guild. The "overlay" technique they created involved the cutting of designs in a heavy gauge silver sheet and then soldering this to a solid silver sheet. The designs were usually adapted from the pottery shards found in the Sikyatki Pueblo ruins of the 15th and 16th centuries. These pre-Hopi designs were mostly bird motifs. The Hopi Guild also used kachina symbols, animal and clan motifs.

Today's Indian silversmiths are in many cases also goldsmiths and lapidaries as well. They cross tribal design boundaries with a will and with abandon. No longer can one look at a piece and say "It's Zuni style so it must be Zuni made." The artist of today may incorporate in a single piece all the styles available as well as his or her own innovation. Indian jewelry today transcends tribal styles.


The Squash Blossom Necklace

When Indian jewelry is mention the symbol that pops to mind is the squash blossom necklace. It is the cornerstone of most Indian jewelry collections. However, most people owning one or more pieces have no idea of its origin or meaning. The following may help one to appreciate more fully this striking piece of jewelry.

This particular art object is truly an Indian creation. However, it developed slowly and has roots deep in non Indian culture and history. The principle part of the necklace is the crescent shaped pendent. This was first seen by the Southwestern Indian as iron ornaments on the horse bridles of the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 1500's and early 1600's. Captured or traded for, these ornaments soon graced the necks of the local Indian populace. Their acquisition was a matter of pride and the ornament was reproduced in the various metals and was proudly displayed during ceremonials. These crescent shaped pendants, originally brought from Spain, reflected the influence of earlier Moorish conquests and the occupation of Spain. As generations came and went, the pendent, referred to as a najahe or naja, became symbolic with the various ceremonials. As most ceremonials were related to the agricultural cycle the naja was associated with crop fertility.

Once silver beads came into fashion around 1880 what more logical place was there to display the naja than on this string of beads? The earlier acquired najas were undoubtedly hung around the owners neck by a simple thong.

The first beads were large, unornamental and round. From these, more complicated ones developed, such as fluted beads and oval beads. Often dimes and quarters were fastened to a silver shank and strung between the beads. Occasionally these coins were domed, filled and made into beads.

The necklace referred to today as the Squash Blossom necklace probably didn't originate much before 1880. This is taken from the fact that Washington Mathews did not mention this type of jewelry in his "Navajo Silversmiths" Second Annual Report, 1880-81. Arthur Woodard, in 1938, pointed out that the Navajo and Zuni beads were originally Spanish-Mexican trouser and jacket ornaments which were fashioned to resemble the pomegranate. The pomegranate was a common Spanish decorator motif, often seen carved or painted on missions in Mexico and often a clothing decoration. If one examined an early Navajo "squash blossom" bead, a striking similarity would be seen to exist between the Mexican ornament and the pomegranate Still, in spite of the similarities, there is quite a bit of doubt that the Navajo attempted to depict this blossom in his bead. The Navajo word for the "squash blossom" bead is "yo ne maze disya gi" which means simply "bead that spreads out." Nothing in the word denoted squash or pomegranate blossom. Perhaps the word was coined by a white man who, asking a Navajo what the bead represented, (the white man is obsessed with what something means, he is rarely satisfied that something is simply attractive) was told that it looked like a squash blossom (the Navajo understands the white man's obsession and often attempts to satisfy it as painlessly as possible.) It is doubtful that the Navajo intended that the bead represent the squash blossom.

Because the Indian ceremonials largely dealt with the agricultural cycle, and the first jewelry was worn during these occasions, coupled with the fact that the beads along with the chain looked like pomegranates or squash blossoms, all have tended to portray the necklace in a crop-fertility ceremonial light.

The squash blossom necklace serves as a reminder of the close interaction between the Pueblo and Navajo Indians since the mid-1800's. The necklace itself is Navajo, adopted by the Zuni. Yet the incorporation of turquoise on each of the blossoms is an advent of the Zuni later adopted by the Navajo.

This brief summary is the author's considered judgment on a subject that has little historical documentation. Undoubtedly there are some solid truths, particularly from the crop fertility standpoint, but equally true is the existence of merely extrapolated conclusions.


Turquoise in Indian Jewelry

In our earlier presentation "Turquoise, A Brief Overview and History" printed, November 1992, the history of turquoise worldwide was discussed. We also covered its occurrence, physical properties, various qualities, grades and a discussion of what can and has been done to turquoise to improve its appearance and durability. We highlighted not only stabilizing techniques and treating techniques but also mentioned fake and synthetic turquoise.

Turquoise, as mentioned earlier has been native to jewelry in the Southwest for over 2000 years. Then, as now the stone was deeply appreciated and held in much reverence. No doubt the prehistoric Indians as well as the ancestors of our current Native Americans ascribed a multitude of properties to this stone. For example:

-The Pima of southern Arizona- Turquoise was a talisman of good fortune and strength to renounce ailments. However, if you lost a turquoise you would be afflicted by a physical ailment treatable only by a medicine man.

-The Zuni believed the blue turquoise was male and of the sky, the green was female and of the earth. Most Zuni fetishes were either made of turquoise or had turquoise properties such as eyes, mouths, or attachments of turquoise to give it more power. Turquoise was powerful and important to most early Indian ceremonials.

-The Rio Grande Pueblos- Most held the turquoise color came from being stolen from the sky and preserved in stone. Their most precious idols were adorned with turquoise. They also employ turquoise for good fortune.

-The Hopi have many traditions regarding turquoise. They, like their Rio Grande Pueblo and Zuni contemporaries adorn their most important fetishes with turquoise to enhance their powers. One legend has turquoise as the excrement of lizards. The lizard is greatly respected for his above-below world connections. They hold that turquoise can hold back the floods. (Floods were a common problem in the desert southwest.)

-The Apache felt turquoise attached to a gun or a bow will cause the weapon to shoot straight. It brought rain and could be found at the end of all rainbows. It was key to the strength of their medicine men.

-The Navajo- Wearing turquoise brings good fortune to the wearer and insures their favor with their Yeis (mediators between man and the supernatural). When thrown into a river with the proper ceremonies it will aid in bringing rain. Turquoise is offered to the Wind Spirit to appease him. The Navajo myth is that when the wind is blowing it is searching for turquoise. The Navajo carve fetishes out of turquoise for increased powers and fortunes. Turquoise is the sacred stone and color of the South and the upper world. The Sacred Mountain of the South, Mt. Taylor near Grants, New Mexico, is made from a mixture of turquoise and earth. The mountains are inhabited by Turquoise Girl. Far to lengthy for this paper, suffice to say, turquoise plays a multitude of roles in healing ceremonies and sand paintings.

The Southwestern Indians use an abundance of turquoise in their jewelry. Some of the turquoise is of exceptional quality and some is not even turquoise. Most range between these extremes.

What is the best turquoise? For more on the intrinsic qualities that make up the "best" as well as other grades and qualities, please review our November 1992 newsletter on Turquoise (see above). But what is the best turquoise for jewelry? Now we proceed along a different path. Lets look at the variables as they apply.

What type of jewelry is desired? If the piece is to be "one of a kind" competition, top investment quality, the turquoise should be gem grade and rare (see November 1992 newsletter). The stone should compliment the artist and the gold or silver work. The turquoise cost per carat can exceed $40.00 per carat.

Very high quality jewelry, equal to that mentioned above and also of investment quality will require gem grade turquoise but not necessarily rare stones. The beauty is there but the cost is not. These stones can cost from $10.00 to $20.00 per carat. On the surface these pieces will be equal in every respect but one- rarity. A breathtakingly beautiful spider web cabochon of Chinese or Tibetan turquoise can cost 75% less than a gem quality piece of Lander or Lone Mountain turquoise for example.

If the goal is to produce, in quantity, high quality jewelry at a price the top 25% of the market can readily afford, then a very high grade to high grade turquoise, properly selected for color, matrix balance, etc. is the goal. Turquoise should cost in the $5.00 to $7.00 per carat range.

The vast majority of jewelry using natural turquoise is made from stones classified as: Jewelry quality, high quality and investment quality (note: good stones, nice luster but not sufficiently hard to preclude long term color change.) These stones are too good to stabilize and should please nearly everyone. Their cost will be $2.00 to $5.00 per carat.

Jewelry that involves the use of many matched cabochons or pieces of inlay nearly always use a good quality turquoise that is stabilized so the color will not change. A beautiful inlay or needle point necklace will loose its appeal if the turquoise near the weavers neck begins to shade toward green because it is absorbing skin oils while the remainder remains sky blue. Good stabilized turquoise is usually sold by the pound as so much is wasted in cutting and grinding. In this work the value of the turquoise is simply part of the value of the art work and over all material cost for the piece.

Good to average quality , mine run, and stock qualities of turquoise are stabilized and used for carving and craft shop jewelry. By and large this is an extremely valuable area economically. It is estimated that over 70% of the Indian crafts persons use this type turquoise either individually or as a shop worker. The result is a beautifully balanced piece and remarkably low priced for the craftsmanship involved. This is the quality of turquoise that created the Indian jewelry market as we know it today. This stone is sold for approximately $80.00 per troy pound but better color can double this.

The lowest qualities, chalk, chip stock and bulk must be stabilized to be used. Often this turquoise is "color shot." In other words, artificially colored. Much of this is used for assembly line manufacturing, machine stamped work, etc. It too has a place in the market. It is sterling silver, it is turquoise and it portrays the "Santa Fe look" at a remarkably low price. Many collectors get their start here, liking the look and becoming interested in the whole field. As they learn more their tastes change, almost always upward. This type of turquoise is $20.00 to $30.00 a pound.

Fake and synthetic turquoise is often found in "Indian" jewelry made overseas- It too is available in the United States and some of the Indians use it. It has a place in the market also as long as its looked at as art and craftsmanship. Look at the jewelry as you would a painting. Don't look for material value... only the value of the art... the creation. Its cost on the market is approximately that of the chip stock or bulk stabilized turquoise that is discussed above.

As you can see, turquoise values range dramatically and it is not always easy to apply a value even though it is easy to establish a cost. In other words value often exceeds cost because of the art work/craftsmanship involved. Sometimes turquoise must be viewed as one does an oil painting. The individual components have little or no value individually but as a whole the art work has significant value.

Suggested Readings- Nearly every book or paper on Indian jewelry and turquoise starts, however briefly with some history of the stone and of the trade. We recommend that the interested reader refer to the readings listed in our first paper, Turquoise - A Brief Overview and History, Lee Anderson, November 1992 and: 1. John Adair, The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths, University of Oklahoma Press, 1944.

2. Carl Rosnek and Joseph Stacy, Skystone and Silver, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976.

3. Margery Bedinger, Indian Silver, Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers, University of New Mexico Press, 1973.

4. Larry Frank, Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Westchester, Pennsylvania, 1990.


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