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History and Types of Native American Jewelry

While every tribe produces distinct and unique Native American jewelry, the traditional pieces all often use the same materials, giving them some overall similarities. Common materials include metals such as copper and silver; stones such as amber and turquoise; and other materials such as beads, shells, and ivory. Generally, Native American jewelry falls into two different categories: beaded and metalwork pieces.

Oldest Pieces

Prior to European settlers arriving in the United States, Native American jewelry was comparatively simple. The Pueblo, Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo Indians were the most instrumental in jewelry-making history. These artists used mostly silver along with semi-precious stones to create both overlay and inlay designs in necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets. The design processes involved simple pounding and hammering of the metal into rudimentary shapes and textures. Artisans etched copper into decorative pieces.

The Use of Beads

When compared to jewelry making, beaded designs were already complex and sophisticated. Artisans made beads out of silver, turquoise, coral, shell, and copper. They also made beads out of wood and bone. These intricate beads were stitched together by the thousands to create distinctive pieces. Artists also combined beads with feathers, yarn, and leather to make pieces that they hung almost anywhere to add decoration. The tribes believed in utilizing materials from nature in the creation of the pieces.

Silversmithing Designs

The introduction of silversmithing from Spaniards broadened the jewelry designs amongst the Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi tribes. Items became more intricate and detailed, including silver overlays and turquoise inlays. Artisans learned how to fuse metals together using innovative techniques that created new twists on traditional Indian designs.

Turquoise Legends

The turquoise stone is a mineral deposit found in a small area located in the southwestern corner of the United States and in Mexico. This stone was highly prized among the tribes, and they utilized it heavily in their Native American jewelry designs. Various legends include the belief that throwing a turquoise stone into a river would bring rain and that turquoise could cure diseases and prevent accidents. Indians believed that wearing turquoise in body armor or embedding it in weapons would make warriors invulnerable. Warriors placed turquoise at the tips of their arrows to improve their accuracy when shooting. Tribes carved turquoise into animal and bird shapes and placed them in tombs to guard the deceased and bring friendly spirits.

The Navajo tribe believed that turquoise brought good fortune to the people who wore it. The Hopi tribe believed a legend about a lizard that moved between the world above and the world below, excreting turquoise that could stop floods. The Pima tribe believed that turquoise could heal illnesses and bring strength and good fortune when worn. The Pueblo people believed that the rich blue color of turquoise was stolen from the sky.