Understanding, Wearing, and Appreciating Native American Jewelry
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.