Understanding, Wearing, and Appreciating Native American Jewelry


squash blossoms

Image taken by Sara of Sarara Couture.

Many people own some form of Native American Jewelry, and such pieces have been in fashion for years. However, there is sometimes more than meets the eye concerning how the many designs relate to the specific symbols, beliefs and aesthetics of particular tribes and artists. I hope to highlight how we should consider the use of older pieces with an appreciation of them that goes beyond the aesthetic. In this post I focused on the southwest and sterling pieces. However, there are many types of Native American jewelry styles created from various materials; some beaded, some in bone, seeds etc.

Not to mention Native designers today, working in the fashion industry, jewelry market, and art world.  Artists pour years of experience into the pieces, and allow the wearer to have access to amazing cultural and individual designs. My affair with vintage Native American jewelry has been a long one. I am drawn to the specialness of the stones chosen, evident in quality examples. I also love the age on the sterling and that smooth worn feel. Layering jewelry is easy with these great old southwestern pieces as well. However, one large quality ring can go a long way too!

Old turquoise Navajo ring, personal collection.

Old turquoise Navajo ring, personal collection.

My personal ring collection, I designed the wooden version.

I hope to demonstrate that really understanding the jewelry will help you find better pieces, wear them in more interesting combinations and connect with them in more meaningful ways.

Vintage Navajo sandcast cuff. Personal Collection.

Old Pawn:

Many “old pawn” pieces were sold during hard times and belonged to families as heirlooms. It seems like almost as long as there has been silver in the southwest there have been trading posts and places to “pawn” pieces. Around the end of the 1800s they began to heavily encouraged trade and sale of such items creating the first consistent non Native demand for southwestern jewelry. The famed Fred Harvey company set up a such a post, fostering the creation of a more specifically touristy pieces.

Trade of such works was originally part of the monitory system on the reservation for a very long time among Navajo and then between the Navajo and non Navajo traders. The oldest pieces of Native American sterling are often unsigned, although one must be careful as there are fakes coming out of China and Mexico. To better familiarize yourself with authentication, please see my text reference list below. There are some great books out there.

One common mistake people make right from the start is to clean this “tarnished” old jewelry. This can lower the value. These pieces in particular hold many layers of meaning. Due to their origins there are even some beliefs about older jewelry which include the idea that a piece sometimes comes to you because it is meant to be cared for by you. Another thing to consider is where a seller might have unscrupulously gotten the item such as a burial or in a dishonest fashion. Such jewelry is believed by some to bring one bad luck. It is even thought by some that turquoise sort of holds the mojo of the past wearer so one would want to “cleanse” it or avoid contact, especially if that person was deceased. It is interesting and appeals to me as an anthropologist to look at the beliefs are when discussing material culture. We may not always believe what others do, but wear and use is really a part of these items.


Cultural Meanings:

A design example that illustrates this discussion can be seen in the first image. This is an older piece that I own and love because of its meaning. It is sand-cast and holds in its center a design that represents the four worlds, mountains, corn and mother earth. Corn is central to the beliefs of the Hopi and the four worlds is significant as well. In this case the piece is Navajo however, their beliefs have some similar core aspects to that of the Hopi. While some pieces have cultural symbolism, others are purely aesthetic so one should not oversimplify the work of artists as purely “ethnographic”. Native American cultures are very much alive, changing, growing, holding on to heritage and passing down knowledge, as well as cranking out artists and designers working today on new concepts.

Navajo Sand Cast example

Navajo Sand Cast example


This is a process the Navajo created in the 1860’s in which one carves the design into two halves of a prepared soft sandstone (tufa). It involves about 4 days of work and is harder than one might assume. Vents are carved leading away from the design in the stone so that hot air can escape. One also has pour channels where the silver will be poured in. The stone is heated to prevent silver from sticking to it and then the artist can pour in the heated or molten silver. This is a very simplified explanation and there are various stages to the pours, both the silver and air must be at a “good” temperature, and polishing the final piece is done in phases.

Navajo Jewelry and Meanings:

To the Navajo people, jewelry can have spiritual meaning, aesthetic or monetary worth- or all three.  Navajo jewelry represents status and one wears their jewelry on special occasions to demonstrate wealth, family pride and status. Elders who wear large amounts of jewelry are sometimes demonstrating their status as a matriarch or patriarch. There are designs elements that are done solely for aesthetic purposes, just like any other art form.  Special occasions like weddings are often a place that the Navajo layer many pieces to illustrate family status and in a way “wear their wealth”. Wealth however has various meanings for various cultures. Some items are seen as basically as cash and trades may be made.

navajo squash blossom

40s-50s Squash Blossom. Sarara Couture

History tells us that the art of silversmithing was brought to the southwest by the Spanish. The first recognized silversmiths in Navajo country are said to date to about 1850-60. Atsidi Saani is widely recognized as the first Navajo silversmith. However, some accounts speak about slightly earlier dates around late 1700s-1810 examples, but evidence has been accepted to indicate 1850-60. After the birth of Navajo silversmithing, they took the techniques learned and made them their own. In their jewelry we see elements of Spanish influence such as the naja (A Moor design which looks like a half moon shape on many squash blossom necklaces) as well as Navajo values or designs. Designs such as the Spanish dome bead and pomegranate led to key components of what would become the squash blossom (see image 2). Yet, again in this case the Dine or Navajo borrowed and altered these designs. The Navajo did not start using turquoise set in sterling until the late 1800’s. Beaded examples include those made of seashells and corals which are altered into amazing beaded necklaces. Some are tube like, others are in the shape of a fetish animal (these can also be made of many stones). Fetish necklaces sometimes contain one or over 50 fetishes. A fetish is usually in the form of an animal. It is an early belief found in the southwest among Zuni and is of great cultural significance. Zuni silver work is often distinguished by its smaller fine inset stones and techniques.They can belong to and represent a clan, or even family. The wearer is protected by the spirit which lives inside or is embodied in the fetish. They are taken care of by their owners in various ceremonial ways. (See Image 3). Santo Domingo work is characterized at times by heishi beads and mosaic inlay styles. There is evidence that this type of work is very old. Archaeological sites related to the Anasazi show similar techniques.

Fetish Necklace, personal collection.

Zuni and Hopi:

Zuni design is often intricate, with polished inset stones in silver forming amazing designs. The stones in jet black, coral, shell and turquoise make up the core materials and overshadow the silver work underneath.

Hopi jewelry is heavily influenced by their pottery designs. They use and layers of silver to create an effect found in their jewelry. Hopi motifs include abstract designs, cornstalks, kiva elements and the Kokopelli. Hopi and Zuni artists did and continue to communicate concerning techniques and designs.

Kachinas to the Hopi are spirits associated with elements, living things, ancestors and life/death. There are over 500 kachinas maybe thousands, millions and they have rolls such as bringing rain and one example lives in the clouds. They oversee or take care of each of these aspects found in nature or the world. Dances are performed, dolls which embody them are made and even kachina jewelry exists. Their role is central to teaching children their culture and playing a part in the everyday natural world. So when wearing a Kachina ring remember who they are.

Kachina Jewelry

The Ketoh:

The Navajo and Hopi used bow guards in a functional way therefore early on they were basically leather wrist guards (there is even evidence that very early ones might have been bone), but as silversmithing developed a larger role after Spanish contact these pieces became more highly embellished with silver and turquoise.  They usually have a central motif and branching elements – 4 is a common number of branches.  4 again for the directions and worlds.

photo 2

Barnes Foundation Museum image. Ketoh, Circa 1900-1910.

Barnes Foundation Museum image. Ketoh, Circa 1900-1910.

Modernist Southwestern Jewelry:

In the 1970’s southwestern jewelry became very popular and the size in both sterling and stones became larger. This is often how you can tell if a piece is from that era, are the stones chunky? I like this look, the bigger the better and I have a few of these items. Large stone bracelets or oversized squash blosooms are still popular. Dating an unsigned item is done by the very fact it is not signed, usually putting it at 60s or older. There are certain motifs and construction details special to the 1940s as well. Many of the older pieces are made with coin silver (silver made from melted down coins-silver content varies).

navajo 70s cuff

Navajo Cuff, 1970s. Sarara Couture

In the 1970’s a new movement took hold in the world of the Native American silversmiths, which combined notions of 60’s “modernism” with cultural designs. New materials such as gold were also used. The greats like Charles Loloma, Boyd and Richard Tsosie, Jesse Monongyne, Jimmy King Jr., Harvey Chavarria among many others commanded the market.

Tsosie example, from my personal collection. Circa 1970s.

Tsosie example, from my personal collection. Circa 1970s.

So, now that you know their names you can look them up and see which styles you admire. Some works are still reasonable, but the pieces by those such as Loloma can be into the thousands. However, these are true artists and to own a piece is an honor and there is a price to be paid for craftsmanship.


Native American Modernist Example, SararaCouture.com

Some of these “modernist” artists are still living. Other living artists are extremely talented and one can find them on the sides of the market at Santa Fe. Look for the Native American artists, sitting on the sides of the central market without booths for great quality pieces. The Navajo fair on the reservation in New Mexico during the summer months is also a great spot for good artists and fair prices. Vendors can be found along the roadside near Shiprock New Mexico as well. In the summer small Native run fairs spring up and are wonderful because you can speak with the artist. Older designs and 1970’s items can be found at local estate sales or even on etsy or ebay (but be careful and do research on the piece/design so that you have comparables). There are some great new artists springing up who follow this aesthetic. Many who started in the 80s as well also continue to work today. A great current source for great examples is the Yazzie exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in NYC, see the info at the end of the article.

Blue corn bracelet, Lee A. Yazzie, 1980. Bisbee and Royal Web turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, opal. Length, 3¼ in. Collection of Joe and Cindy Tanner. Photo © Kiyoshi Togashi. NMAI image, rights reserved.

Blue corn bracelet, Lee A. Yazzie, 1980. Bisbee and Royal Web turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, opal. Length, 3¼ in. Collection of Joe and Cindy Tanner. Photo © Kiyoshi Togashi. NMAI image, rights reserved. From their website publicity for the exhibit.


A few web sources to familarize yourself with artist’s work and or purchase from:


http://www.sedonaindianjewelry.com/Jewelry/frames.html – This site has a lot of the masters like Tsosie so you can learn how to identify past work or buy current examples.

I have tried to impart specific yet basic level knowledge and tips in the blog which allows for deeper research if interested. For more information see:


My personal archive of Arizona Highways magazines.

My personal archive of Arizona Highways magazines.

Editor. Chalker, Kari. Totems to Turquoise. American Museum of Natural History.

Arizona Highways magazine. Older editions from the 1970’s. Especially April 1979. Collector’s Edition. The New Look in Indian Jewelry.

Shelby Jo-anne Tisdale. Fine Indian Jewelry of the Southwest: The Millicent Rogers Museum Collection.

The Beauty of Navajo Jewelry. by Theda Bassman, Gene Balzer.

Turquoise Trail: Native American Jewelry and Cultures of the Southwest. Jeffrey Jay Foxx, Carol Karasik.

Southwestern Jewelry. Dexter Cirillo.

Hallmarks of the Southwest. Barton Wright.

Zuni Jewelry. Theda Bassman.


National Museum of the American Indian: NYC-Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family

November 13, 2014–January 10, 2016

“Glittering World presents the story of Navajo jewelry through the lens of the gifted Yazzie family of Gallup, New Mexico—one of the most celebrated jewelry making families of our time. The silver, gold, and stone inlay work of Lee Yazzie and his younger brother, Raymond, has won every major award in the field. Their sister Mary Marie makes outstanding jewelry that combines fine bead- and stonework; silver beads are handmade by other sisters.

Glittering World—featuring almost 300 examples of contemporary jewelry made by several members of the Yazzie family—shows how the family’s art flows from their Southwest environs and strong connection to their Navajo culture. With historic pieces from the museum’s collections, the exhibition places Navajo jewelry making within its historical context of art and commerce, illustrates its development as a form of cultural expression, and explores the meanings behind its symbolism”( NMAI website).

I will be attending the exhibit and presenting a review for those who cannot attend.

Walk Like An Egyptian Red Carpet Style-Harley Viera Newton for Judith Leiber

skull bag Leiber

Image via Judith Leiber.com/Rights Reserved. Couture skull bag.

So, I admit I have a love – hate thing with Judith Leiber bags. I either love them, especially her 1970s clutches or it just doesn’t do it for me. That said, I kind of feel that this is due to custom nature of the designs, it is meant to be that way- a bag sort of speaks to you or doesn’t. One of my favorites designs features a snake as seen below. Examples of the 70s styles include both crystal and exotic skin bags. Judith Leiber was a pioneer in terms of women designing bags, as the first woman accepted into the handbag guild. She has been creating these accessories for first ladies and the red carpet since 1953 (Her company was officially founded in 1963). Now in her 90s, and a survivor of the holocaust, she is an inspiration.  Judith moved to New York with her husband and focused on her dreams. I personally remember learning about her time working with one of my favorite accessories designers- Nettie Rosenstein. Her bags are now in various museum collections like the Met, as well as her own official one located in East Hampton. The Judith Leiber museum contains over 900 bags. Since many designs were limited or couture, the museum must be still searching some of the rarer ones to add to that archive.

As of more recent years something which bridges fashion accessories and the Judith Leiber vintage designs seems to be happening. Who could forget the cupcake bag via Sex and the City…..Well, that was just the beginning of a sort of renewed interest in the designs. Today, in part this is due to the appointment of Ana Matheson as creative director.

This rejuvenated interest in her bags, includes a whole new young client base, and you can see this in the choice of designs as of late. Per this bag, front and center on the website- called the  BELA LAUGOSI  Skull bag. The company seems to be producing some fashion forward couture bags which bridge the gap between past and present.

Judith Leiber.com/Rights Reserved

The newest endeavor for S/S 15 is pure fashion fun. Harley Viera Newton, a New York DJ, model by trade and a new fashion favorite worked with the iconic bag company to create a couture collection. She describes her discovery of Judith Leiber in the recent Elle magazine interview.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 4.47.11 PMJudith Leiber Couture Collection via ModaOperandi.com

Vintage accessories lovers can relate to her enthusiasm and most have at least one of Leiber’s bags in their collection.  ModaOperandi.com has the Harley collaboration for preorder now exclusively. One thing you will notice is what a bargain the 70s snake bag may seem to be! However, the Harley collection does feature thousands of quality crystals and 24K gilt on some of the bags.

Judith Leiber Egyptian bags/ Harley

Judith Leiber Couture bags-image via ModaOperandi.com- snapped by my computer as I shopped!

In terms of reviewing the designs, her creations for Judith Leiber are really a great merge of her interests in Egyptology and the brand’s own Egyptian revival/deco influenced styles of the past. I think a serious collector or red carpet maven could do no wrong having one.

Vintage Judith Leiber Crystal Bag

Vintage 70s Leiber crystal bag via our shop. See the bag link for vintage examples.

My anthropology background also relates to her interest in ancient Egypt.  I think she has a whimsical, yet chic approach to the couture bags she’s created.  My favorites bags are the river snake (which actually has a pretty head shape when seen from above), the silver pyramid and the hieroglyph clutch. It features Egyptian hieroglyphics which spell out Judith Leiber as well as Harley. The camel gets an honorable mention for its whimsy! Honestly the winged scarab box clutch isn’t too shabby either! Not to mention the scarab is a sign of rebirth- referring to the Egyptian god which pushed the sun across the sky to be reborn each day. So, it is fitting that this collection highlights a sort of resurgence of interest in Judith Leiber bags.


Finding Lou Lou De La Falaise

                                                                    -The Glamorous Romantic-

Lou Lou de La Falaise

Lou Lou de La Falaise The Glamorous Romantic, rights reserved. From my copy of the text.

I knew of Lou Lou de La Falaise through her work with Yves Saint Laurent and via old photographs. Possibly my favorite image is of Lou Lou and Yves styling model and icon Willy Van Rooy. That moment captures her work philosophy, fashion style and tells you she is the cool girl. Not in the cliche way, but in a very natural fluid way.  She’s an it girl because her style seems to flow from within towards the surface.  Lou Lou was born of a complex and beautiful model mother, which the book by her name covers quite well. Her father was a French count.

Lou, Lou, Willy Van Rooy and Yves, 1980.

Lou, Lou, Willy Van Rooy and Yves, 1980. Image from text, copy also provided by Willy as seen in our interview with her.

However, through the descriptions in the book (such as that of Kenneth Jay Lane), I also became very interested in her strict, but stylish, creative, muse of a grandmother- Rhoda. Rhoda had two hobbies central to Lou Lou’s own personal character; jewelry making and gardening. But you’ll have to read the book for more about Lou Lou’s formative years! Her personal, love life and career sort of intertwine in the book giving us an idea of how she arrived at YSL’s house so to speak. The journey is so well described by Ariel de Ravenel and Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni…

Her relationship with Yves Saint Laurent was a deep and meaningful partnership, which produced so many outstanding fashion accessories and beyond, so the book really is a truly hypnotic read. I found her years spent working after YSL and her work ethic overall very inspiring. The images of her creations for Yves are illuminated by how she actually wore jewelry throughout the images accompanying the text.  The photographs of her style are much welcomed and absolutely essential.  The book is not to be missed (Pierre Berge’s forward for instance) and provides wonderful quotes from fashion icons concerning Lou Lou, as well as building a foundation for readers concerning why she was so essential to one of the most beloved and talented fashion designers that ever lived.


Lou Lou de La Falaise The Glamorous Romantic, rights reserved. From my copy of the text.

To quote the book and Yves:

“I tell myself that I am truly fortunate to have had Lou Lou at my side all of these years because there isn’t a day that goes by when she doesn’t fill me with wonder” (Lou Lou de La Falaise, 132).

Lou LouTurkmen1

*IMAGES: Credit-Lou Lou de La Falaise The Glamorous Romantic, rights reserved. I have included my favorite photos from the book in this review. I am drawn to her ever present vintage/antique Turkmen silver cuffs which she mixed with other accessories, seen in two images included. However possibly my favorite cuffs she did, were for YSL haute couture. These in my mind are some of the most telling pieces she designed. They mix that chic, modern and bohemian aesthetic perfectly- that I also ascribe to and love so innately.  They are large, not to be missed, a bit wild, yet refined…..

It is at this point I pause… I found that the complete review had already been done so well, as the book released in October of this year. Our blog relaunch was in wild swing at that time so rather than not post I did want to highlight this book I enjoyed so much.  For a more detailed description: click here.

Maison Goossens: More to a Title Than Meets the Eye

Haute Couture Read:

Robert Goossens:

All images from Maison Goossens Haute Couture Jewelry, rights reserved. Sneak Peek view. Collage compiled from my copy of the text.

I must admit that when I heard about the release of the book Maison Goossens by Patrick Mauries via Thames and Hudson Ltd., which chronicles the work of Robert Goossens and his fantasic creations, I was already sold.  When the luxurious gray linen covered text arrived with the vibrant images I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.  Opening the book I experienced a rock crystal fantasy bijoux world of the work of Goossens in technicolor.  We are introduced to the old world accessories makers of France with Line Vautrin and Robert’s start there. The longevity of his career gives us an idea of how important such arduos hands-on training was to the eventual construction of such precise and beautifully crafted designs.  He did the time so to speak, and it wasn’t always glamourous – thus one can understand his pride in being called an artisan.  The book discusses Chanel’s relationship with Gripoix and the earlier more delicate designs versus the Fulco di Verdura’s style and how Goossens fits in, although it also touches on his work for other houses, like Balenciaga.  Key players in his career like Marquise de Beausset are address, intrigued yet?  You should be! Oh did I mention YSL, custom rock crystal chandeliers and Thierry Mugler?  Which leads me to one question, Maison Gripoix or Maison Degorce or? Here’s a clue, you have to read the last chapter for that answer… However, perhaps most relevant for collectors and admirers are the works of Patrick Goossens, heir to the thrown so to speak. Yes, those huge couture Dior earrings were his. In fact a number of images in the last chapter are very helpful in identifying his work on the runways and what the next vintage accessories to collect are!

“If Coco hadn’t taken me under her wing, I’m quite sure no one would have given my work a second glance. She was a bit like the grandmother I never knew. That said, she never told me if what I’d done was any good. Never ever! The first time I made her a piece of jewelry – a gold brooch with three large pearls and a diamond she’d given me, real gemstones- I took it up to her studio on the second floor( it was only the second time we had met). She put the brooch on and carried on talking about something else. After a little while, I asked her what she thought of the brooch. She looked straight at me with those jet-black eyes of hers and said: “If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have worn it!” (Robert Goossens, Maison Goossens by Patrick Mauries). 

*Available here


*Above sneak peek images photographs of the text’s, original image rights reserved to Maison Goossens.




Finell Bags: The Modern Woman’s Carry All

When I saw this lifestyle brand on instagram, I was mesmerized by their new bag line.  At that time I just couldn’t seem to find anywhere to buy one! So, I’m here to introduce you to them… Finell.co — based in the good old US of A. FINELL describes itself as “a designer and manufacturer of neo luxe housewares and fashion accessories, based in Austin, TX. ‘Great design is what drives every part of the FINELL brand’ explains CEO Rebecca Finell. We celebrate simplicity and smart design. We let go of convention to create new utilities and exciting products that redefine modern design.”

If you’ve seen them, but were in the dark, like me, as to where to buy- guess what? They now have them for sale on their online site.  Who knows exactly why these speak so clearly to me? Maybe my husband’s origami tradition/obsession finally trickled down to me unconsciously, but I am loving these bags.  Quite possibly it’s their simple yet modern lines, chic materials, and perfect basic tones.  The “greige” or grey beige style putty colored bag is perfection. Now Finell bags are works of art and priced that way, they range from $95 for a coin bag to $1095 for the tote and everything in between.  You can find the various locations to see one in person listed on Finell.co, but I can tell you Bergdorf Goodman just started carrying them. If the new accessories line, launching soon, is as good (bracelet shown below), they might have to make accessorizing a full time job.  And like us all after a hot summer day, these bags need to be stored in a cool dry place.

Finell Bags

Finell.com images, rights reserved.