Anthropology of Jewelry: A Look at Jewelry Worn in Tibetan Buddhist Sculpture

Gorgeously detailed set of doors displayed at the Rubin, looks similar to Yama depicting death, the lord of Impermanence (Death). However with the flaming eyebrows appears to be Mahakala a wrathful but more gentle Tibetan icon. He protects monasteries. So this explains him being on an old monastery door.

Buddism in its early inception in India, was not particularly visually represented as much as it was practiced or taught. As it spread, the use of sculpture and idols, as well as art in various forms became central to its expression, especially in Tibet. Buddism is ultimately about death, birth, and what we do in the world of the living. Key symbols like the wheel, which is said to have been part of the origins of Buddhism, are seen throughout the art forms. The wheel is complex, relating to death, which is often depicted in artwork along with a demonic style figure called Yama. This shows our lives are ruled by core principles like impermanence, suffering, rebirth, and passion. All of these elements can help us grow. There are “realms or levels” and 6 worlds depicted in the wheel. The Bhavachakra or wheel is often found on textiles and outside temples.  All of Buddha’s teachings are symbolically illustrated so that one can ultimately follow a path to liberation from the earthly elements that bind us, these teachings unite all creatures not just humans, to an ultimate possible Nirvana.  To try to explain all of Buddhism here is an impossibility, and most certainly a book, course, and lifetime is needed to grasp it entirely. So, for those interested in learning more about the history of Buddhism and Tibetan practices, I am including a list of suggested readings in this post.

Sculpture and Jewelry:

In terms of adornment and symbolism, the Tibetan sculptures are rich. I want to focus on the jewelry worn in the sculptures in an attempt to understand the relationship between religion, cultures, and adornment. What can we learn? Well, to start I went to see an exhibit on Tibetan Buddhism, textiles, and sculpture at the Rubin museum of art in New York. These objects were once used in a spiritual context and the deities they represent are invoked, see this Christies article for more.  I toured some exhibits and permanent installations, as their focus is on Himalayan examples. What did I see?

Interestingly enough the snake which I so love in the form of jewelry, has the meaning of one of the three fires which keep us from enlightenment in life (greed, ignorance, and hatred).  They hold fast to each other in a circle. This can be seen in the Dharma wheel (a visual representation of Buddha’s core teachings).  These obstacles prevent a good rebirth. Depending on what kind of level you are reborn into, the animal or human etc reflects the level of suffering one may endure. In the wheel, even gods can die and exist on a lower level than those who escaped this cycle.  Thus, with so many levels and beings trying to work their way out, it is believed that those on the animal realm should be treated considerately by humans.

The Dharma Wheel and Jewelry:

The statues depict the second Buddha, Buddha, and forms that have escaped the cycles of the wheel or life and death.  Many statues sit on a lotus flower in these pieces, which symbolizes having grown above the attachments of life. I think we can deduce that the earrings and hats have a strong symbolic significance for the figures as they repeat throughout. Notably, these Dharma wheel style earrings are very interesting as they are found in quite a few examples at the Rubin. There are eight raised circular areas in this earring’s overall circle, with one central stone. Possibly, a reference to the eight spokes or paths coming from the center.

Padmasambhava or the second Buddha as he is sometimes referred wearing symbols like the sun and moon on his hat. The moon symbolizing liberation. The hat as the museum description below states is a symbol for his lotus birth.

However, in the piece below the earring features 6 turquoise stones. These could symbolize 6 realms on that wheel. Again, the center of the wheel being the circle in which we find the 3 poisons or fires. The wheel is believed to have been designed by Buddha, so its symbols are important additions to such statues.

Note the body jewelry used to adorn this figure. On this object the jewelry has the appearance of another wheel in the middle.


The Monster: While there is the death symbol, as described here below-there are deities that set up obstacles, but also protect tantric traditions.

The skull adornment on this figure in the form of a crown and necklace is central to the theme. We see skulls on Yama, but this figure doesn’t quiet appear to be him, but the skulls remind us of death and impermanence.


The Tantric:


Again the crown appears to be the most symbolic featuring skulls, the rest of the jewelry seems to be more for beauty or in the popular styles of the time. These royal style jewels and crowns are indicators of the tantric deities.

For tantric deities that are female, the pose and belts seem to highlight the importance of that female power. Again the jewelry is beautifully done.

The amount of jewelry here again signals status and tantric deities. Firstly all of the jewelry present is quite striking. There is body jewelry that can be seen again across the stomach and legs.

Symbols are held in the hands as well, I think I see the lotus in one hand.



This has been a fruitful exercise in the exploration of how jewelry is central to social cues, religions, genders, and power. The fact that jewelry was so intricately done and included in these relics indicates the importance of their role in Tibet. They took the time to not only include them, but to set stones like turquoise inside the examples.  Turquoise in Tibet is a stone which relates to the soul, symbolizes a higher status, is worn by brides, used in amulets ( some of the earrings and such above have an appearance similar to Tibetan amulets), and is related to prosperity and wellness.

The Rubin Museum in New York city houses some amazing examples and revolving exhibits. Their bookstore is also very interesting! I hope to continue to explore the anthropology of jewelry again soon.


Awakening from the Daydream. David Nichtern.

Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. Suzuki Roshi

The Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Sogyal Rinpoche.

The Teachings of Buddha. Jack Kornfield.

Tibetan Religious Art Book. Antoinette K. Gordon.

Buddist Symbols in Tibetan Culture: An Investigation of the Nine Best-Known Groups of Symbols. Dagyab Rinpoche.

The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning. Denise Patry Leidy.

Ulrich von Schroeder’s complete set: Indo-Tibetan Bronzes.


The Met, Madonna, Jewelry, Fashion, and the Catholic Imagination.

Image from the press preview, Heavenly Bodies.

This evening is the first Monday in May, when the Met Gala is held and the Costume institute opens one of the largest exhibits its ever devised, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. After reported multiple negotiations between Anna Wintour and the Vatican, the exhibit was deemed a go and as of today we will all get a glimpse of what could potentially be one of the most interesting exhibits to date. Catholic symbols are so interwoven into many cultures, it is clear this will be an intriguing look at how fashion relates to everything from the Pope to the Virgin Mary. One of the countries that this is very prevalent is Brazil. After living there over 5 years, I was very aware how the Catholic religion of the Portuguese had mixed with African and indigenous cultures. It infused their fashion and jewelry in a very deep manor.

Image from Carlos Miele, Homenagem a Mario Cravo Neto.

Symbols abound in Brazil…While writing my thesis on indigenous identity in Brazil and the United States, I discovered just how powerful religious iconography could be, when I saw parallels between early depictions of indigenous women as America and the notion of Mary and the anti-Mary or savage woman.  While this was one element of a very long thesis, Catholic imagery has long interested me. From texts such as that by Paul Koudounaries, whose photographs of the early jewel adorned Christian martyrs and saints in underground tomb amaze, to Madonna’s virginal performance, I was hooked. Madonna famously used key components of the religion: like virgins, saints, and martyrs in her musical performances. Her early work especially, really demonstrates her mastery of symbolism.

Nossa Senhora de Aparecida/ Our Lady of Aparecida.

For the Catholic religion, symbols become the incarnate or earthly representation of that which is held to be sacred and holy. It become even clearer over the years these notions of “saints” and “sinners” were part of an elaborate symbolic relationship between Catholicism, Christianity, power, and culture. The adornment associated with Catholicism is a complex narrative of clothing, ritual, and jewelry. One that they brought with them to the Americas, Africa, and beyond. One can also see some of these Catholic references in Georgian and early 1800s Italian jewelry, Victorian Momento Mori pieces, early Byzantine jewelry, and other antique examples which we will illustrate below.

1870s Italian, Castellani piece. Inspired by Byzantine jewelry. Housed in the Met, image by Sarara Couture.

Circa 1850s, some gold construction references to Byzantine jewelry, angel etc. By Luigi Saulini. Met Museum. Image Sarara Couture.

The Saints:

Details on my charm necklace, that I created while living in Brazil. It includes antique examples and newer saints in silver. Our Lady of Aparecida is pictured twice.

Catholicism has a lot of saints, and in each location where they brought the religion with them this varied. For instance, the negotiation between Catholicism and Brazil led to the creation of Afro-Catholic religions, various new Brazilian saints, and adornments. One example of jewelry which portrays this relationship are the pendants depicting Our Lady of Aparecida.  The saint has a long history associated with a mysterious statue pulled from the Paraiba river in the 1700s, all the way to the references to the “Black Madonna”. Scapulars or double saint necklace, featuring one saint worn hanging down the back, and another the front often also depict Our Lady of Aparecida. Popular cultural uses of these scapulars are all over the country, especially for surfers who use them as protection. So in honor of the Met exhibit I wanted to look at a few examples of jewelry and accessories.

Scapular example.

Personal Collection.


What is Catholicism if not Roman? The history of the Roman empire and it’s relationship to Christianity is a saga we cannot hope to summarize here, but we can look at the early roots in terms of jewelry if we look at Byzantium. The empire at the time was divided into two parts. Eastern and Western Rome.  In about 330 A.D. the Roman emperor Constantine I established New Rome or Constantinople and Christianity as its official religion. When Rome fell in 476 all that was left was eastern Rome or the Byzantine empire.  This is a complex history but to summarize this empire survived for centuries after. This is a moment rich in iconography, jewelry, and symbolism until the 8th and part of the 9th century when emperors banned religions imagery. Around 1054 the religious split came where one was called the Roman Catholics and the others the Eastern Orthodox Catholics. The rest is a very long history to get to today’s Rome, Vatican, and it’s relationship to Italy. However; it does lead to my favorite part Byzantine examples of jewelry. Here are some housed in the Met.

6th Century Byzantine. On display at the Met Museum.

Gold Necklace with Ornaments, 6th century
Byzantine, Early Byzantine
Gold; Overall: 36 x 7 x 1 3/8 in. (91.4 x 17.8 x 3.6 cm) Wt: 225g pendant cross: 2 3/4 x 1 7/8 x 3/8 in. (7 x 4.8 x 1 cm) pendant: 1 7/16 x 11/16 x 1/2 in. (3.7 x 1.7 x 1.2 cm) pendant: 1 3/8 x 5/8 x 1/2 in. (3.5 x 1.6 x 1.2 cm) pendant: 1 5/16 x 11/16 x 9/16 in. (3.3 x 1.7 x 1.4 cm) pendant: 1 9/16 x 11/16 x 1/2 in. (4 x 1.8 x 1.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.151)

7th Century, Byzantine.

Other Byzantine examples I photographed at the Met.

The Cross:

The history of the cross, as a symbol for Christians, can be traced back at least to the 3rd Century, which continues today and has spread of course into pop cultural references and iconography. That is why jewelry from the rosary to the cross can have so much power for the believer. The rosary is really a tool for prayer, with days assigned to types of prayer and each element or bead meaning different things. The bead above the cross is for the “Our Father” prayer, then you have the 3 Hail Marys, Glory Be and on.  When those messages are converted a vast system of counter cultural references can be created.  Symbols, gender, sexuality, and religion, are all tightly bound in the overall cultural belief system. Jewelry and accessories are one area where that iconography has been unwrapped and rewrapped in pop culture in very interesting ways.

Antique and Brazilian examples, my collection.

Pop Culture and the Fashion Accessory:

Catholicism’s relationship to popular culture is complex to define. Popular culture is a bit difficult itself to pin down! In many ways, it is a set of beliefs and objects endowed with symbols that have been created or reiterated by the newest generation. It becomes dominant at any certain period and proliferates in that setting. Fashion’s use of Catholic symbols was in some cases, a counter cultural response or rebellion that became pop culture history. Other times, it is a romanticism or fetishism of Catholicism that emerges. To celebrate the sure to be enthralling Met exhibit, I’m including below a round up of the best Catholic infused fashion accessories and jewelry for sale at the moment. I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to see Madonna tonight!

Vintage example of a saint devotional charm bracelet.



Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris

In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo American Mourning Jewelry. 2012. Sarah Nehama.

The Meaning of Icons
by Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky

The Theology of the Icon
(2 volume set)

Carlos Miele. Cosac & Naify.

Anthropology of Jewelry: Luxurious Jewelry in the Ancient Americas

“Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas” currently exhibited at the Met museum showcases the finely made gemstone and gold laden piece of the “ancient” Americas. It is a tantalizing presentation into the complex culture and skill level of the ancient Americas to say the least. As a doctor of anthropology, my focus of study was indigenous North American and Brazilian cultures, so I could not wait to see these material cultural items in person. I interned at the university at the Snite museum at Notre Dame and I remember well the Olmec and Native North American pieces we had the privilege to work with.  Although such an exhibit has many positives for the jewelry world, such as the study of culture and debunking the stereotypes of these peoples as “savage”; many aspects must be taken into consideration to properly understand these items.  As some of them were for ritual and spiritual use it would be, per most Native North American cultures, disrespectful to photograph them. I tried to avoid this whenever possible. We as observers should count ourselves lucky to see these pieces as some of which were taken to the grave with the intent to function there. This is also one reason why current artist’s shouldn’t borrow shapes and inspire from such indigenous sacred objects technically speaking, if one hopes to respect the culture. In an ideal situation they would still be there, but as anthropologist I do understand this discipline’s early role in gathering “artifacts” to preserve for science and the pitfalls of that history today as we grapple with the study of the “other”. However; discussions about how they should have been documented and left in the context found or displayed in the original country of origin are becoming more prevalent. While some of them are on loan from those origin countries, which is great, one should not forget that the indigenous descendants of many of these cultures are indeed still living today and we should endeavor to continue to connect those worlds.  The Maya come to mind of course… I am grateful to see such items in person, but I cannot truly speak of them without addressing some of these aspects.

The “wind” Jade Collar discovered in Mexico at the Calakmul tomb. 660A.D.-750.

The spiritual element is extremely important, as the function of most of this jewelry displayed ranged from that, to status, political power, gender, and beauty.  Regalia worn by rulers, on special occasions, and outside of rituals represent some of this complex negotiation, and they can be viewed as such.  However, as many pieces were with the ruler in death it branches from status into functioning as part of the spirituality of the culture, which is complex. Overall gold, jadeite, obsidian, crystal, amber, feathers, turquoise, and shell were reserved for non utilitarian items. Sacred gold helmets with bird feathers found in tombs are such an example.  Of course, the importance of the material varying depending upon the culture making the pieces.  The exhibit did a fine job, as well of discussing trade and how far some of these special materials were transported before becoming jewelry or adornment thus increasing it’s worth to those societies. The items being used over generations and the artistic complexities displayed helped to paint a clearer image for the viewer.

Example of how royalty can show status in their role as leader, while it has spiritual symbols the level is not as high as burial objects or such used in actual rituals.

In the jewelry world here in the United States, in the idea of luxury is often associated with gold or diamonds, however in circles of costume jewelry collectors, it is not material but the designer or rarity that colors its overall worth. This one of the important details of understanding material culture and how value is decided by the cultures creating it, not necessarily by the rarity.  In the ancient Americas this was also the case as a feather or jadeite could be the material of choice for spiritual or status laden works of body jewelry.  As such we must remember we are gazing through a lens which values golden jewelry, so that is what is most heavily displayed at such exhibits, although again they did a good job of including and discussing jadeite, shell and such.

So we come to the crossroads of how understanding the ancient Americas is important and whether we can try to merge this desire with respect and awe. The works displayed here really do a fantastic job of illustrating the fine craftsmanship and what luxury meant to these cultures. It gives us the history of gold working and technology exchange in the Americas. Their research has helped to highlight how women of power also wore such jewelry and nose plugs. They present us with the works of great artists and put value on the endeavors of these societies in a magical way. There are lots of newly discovered items, even some rescued from the ocean such as the “Fisherman’s treasure” an item looted but was lost in the ocean, which saved it from being melted down! See the Met video below and our favorite pieces from our trip.  With various exhibit tours and discussions happening this month be sure to check it out in person! It ends May 28th. Exhibit Text link here.

Our favorite jewelry and objects to see:

Pectoral, spirals hammered gold. Nahuange. A.D. 200-900. Colombia, Magdalena, Santa Marta.

Ear Ornaments. Peru.

Ear Ornaments. Peru.

Ear Ornaments Narino, A.D. 800-1300. Colombia, Narino Highlands Consaca.

Octopus Frontlet. Gold Peru, La Mina. A.D. 300-600. Would have been affixed to a headdress.

Serpent Labret or lip plug. Aztec. A.D. 1300-1521.

Spanish crown of the Virgin, 1660-1770 showing influences of pre Columbian cultures.

Colombia Tolima region. 1 B.C.- A.D. 700. Pendant.

Jadeite, Maya plaques. A.D. 700-900

Peru, chest ornament. A.D. 200-1470.

Peru, chest ornament. A.D. 200-1470.

Spear thrower, Diadem, Nose ornament, ear ornaments, ear pendants, Pectoral. Calima Yotoco 100 B.C.-A.D. 800
Regalia worn in life and death.

Ear Ornaments Mexico, Tenochtitlan A.D. 1486-1502.

Tabard, 1,446 plaques of shell, thought to be similar to those used by warriors. This one is symbolic (possible reference to water and fire and opposing elements of the cosmos). found in the Burned Palace. offering to ruler or burial. Toltec. A.D. 900-1200.

Helmet and Armband. Crocodilian beings and birds. Panama Sitio Conte.

Circular plaque, usually affixed to a garment. Crocodile god. Monkey pendant. Emerald and quartz pendants set in gold.
Cocle A.D. 700-900. Panama.

Fine group of ornaments from Peru’s North coast. High status individuals wore such ear ornaments. Cupisnique, 800-500B.C.

*All images taken by Sarara Couture at the exhibit.

Brazilian Jewelry History(Joias de Crioulas): The Balangandán and the Charms of Bahia

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006.

One of the things I loved about teaching anthropology at Scad, was exploring adornment and culture. The students loved learning more about how material culture gives us clues about our belief systems and diverse histories.  In this case, anthropology opened up a discourse concerning diversity, status, gender, and jewelry.  My training was in indigenous cultures and visual anthropology as well.

Jewelry is such an important aspect of culture.  Many cultures use jewelry to indicate status, gender cues, clan affiliation, and for monetary means as well.  Women in patrilineal cultures have traditionally used jewelry to survive, storing and hiding pieces to be used easily and converted to money during times of war or strive. Cultures value different stones, woods, and materials. One of my favorite examples of this, that I came into contact with while living in Brazil, was the Blanagandan.  This piece of jewelry represents the encounter between Portuguese culture and Africans in Brazil. This sad, but rich history, began when slaves were brought to Brazil after many of the enslaved indigenous populations started to die of disease.  With them, they brought the beliefs of the many tribes and cultures which they originated from, such as the Yoruba.

Old Yoruba Divination Necklaces. My collection.

The original Balangandans were made of the precious metal silver, at the end of the 17th century with their popularity gaining in the 18th-19th century.  These pieces of jewelry had a direct relationship to status and monetary wealth or value.  There are both Christian and African symbols in the construction of the jewelry. One can recognize properties of divination and symbols straight from Africa, merged here in the balangandan (it has been suggested that this word referred to the sound made when worn). However, it may be more likely related to African linguistic origins.

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006. Notice how the Balangandan is worn at the waist.

Specifically, Balangandans were worn by freed slaves and some slaves whom the ‘owners’ favored, but because these pieces had more references to Africa and non Catholic elements they were used or worn in more specific situations, than they “creole or freed slave gold jewelry”. However, it is really important to emphasize that these were objects of jewelry that were indeed negotiated by the African women themselves. They control their image and status using these objects, which also included fine earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings of gold. This is something that did not happen visually obvious for North American freed slaves. Brazilian Creolo women and freed slaves obtained a status that showed in the women of Bahia and their gold jewelry. It was stacked sky high both inside and outside the house, when the occasion was correct. This was especially the case of the freed creole women, whose wealth grew as they were sought out by Catholic women for spiritual advice and secret solutions of non Catholic origin. They were paid for such services and their status often grew.  Many were practicing a form of Candomblé, yet keeping Catholicism in some aspects.  Another important detail to realize is that these Balangandans were not necklaces, but belts where charms were personalized and added for the purposes of the wearer.

Probably one of the best sources in the world is the Museum of Carlos Costa Pinto in Salvador. Their text which was published for a collection exhibit which contained “creole” and slave jewelry is in Portuguese, and has many historically rich details. The text discusses how the overall exaggerated use of layers of jewelry used by women in Bahia, led to Carmen Miranda’s persona and accessories styling. They discuss the possibility of slave women also earning enough jewelry to in some instances buy freedom. The jewelry’s relationship to the women is complex as suggested by this quote:

“A opulencia e um ultima instancia, uma exteriorização de luxo e riqueza, mesmo podendo dar uma impressao falso de que a exibe. Joias de rainha para mulheres do povo, livres ou escravas. Joias atraentes, capazes de sinalizar poder e distinção” ( O que e que a Bahia tem, 56. Ourivesaria do Museu Carlos Costa Pinto) Simone Trindade.  Translation: This opulence, is an instance where the appearance of luxury and riches is possible to at the same time, give one a false impression of what they are exhibiting.  Jewelry fit for a queen, but instead used by poorer women free or enslaved.

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006.The jewelry of these women also included gold pieces, like huge cuffs and necklaces, also bearing a mix of Catholic and African references. This was particularly the case in 1881, when slaves were freed and such precious metals came to symbolize power in freedom.  In some ways, it was important to have some relationship to the dominant religion, while at the same time hiding certain beliefs in the symbolism. The Balangandan is made up of the chain, thicker usually used as a belt, the “nave” or charm holder, and the charms. It was very specific to the user, charms chosen according to what they needed or valued. It seems that there was a use for specific charms alone versus the entire Balangandan, which was also negotiated when needed. The Balangandan had a mystic and religious function and was not publicly demonstrated as much as the gold bracelets and such. Older women of status would bring them out specifically for festivals or gatherings as well. They seem to be tied to wealth, whereas the Balangandan is more tied to use and status. Although there are some more commonly used symbols intact, many referencing male and female aspects as well:

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006. Antique Balanganda. 30 charms on silver.

pomegranate-wealth prosperity

fish-reference to Jesus and ample food

The Key-control, access to that which is locked.

Dipper- fertility

Tooth- to take on the properties of the animal and to protect

Figa to ward off evil, popular in Brazil ( North African and Mediterranean origin)

Pages 64-65 of the Museum booklet found at Carlos Costa Pinto describes the symbols in more detail.

Repro pieces made for tourists after the 19th century are often brass and examples from the 50s look like necklaces in silver metals, smaller scale-usually uniform in materials, thin tin metals, and caste construction in some cases. In terms of the older rarer examples there are ways to tell, such as the maker’s marks, style of construction, and material.  This rich iconography continues to be a big part of the culture of the area and is a fascinating example of gender, women’s roles and the power of jewelry as a symbol.

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006. Balangandan. Antique example. Showing authentic construction and diverse materials used.

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,

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: – 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.