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Native American Jewelry 101

Native American Jewelry 101

The beauty of Native American jewelry is not just because of its intricate design plus the combination of precious stones and emblematic animals crafted in one necklace. More than the craftsmanship, the history, and symbolism, which cannot be seen by itself, makes it a collectible gem.  

Unfolding the History

More than a hundred centuries ago, tribes had long learned the skill of crafting from precious metals, shells, pearls, and other stones. Our forefathers and distant kin did not exactly refer to it as art or luxury. Native American Jewelry could also have originated from the thought of durability rather than pleasantry.

Since time immemorial, the US has been regarded as a melting pot of cultures. Before turning into the Great United States of America, there’s rich history preserved way back when there was a group of thirteen colonies. America was home exclusively to a myriad of native tribes though there is a diversity quotient among some of them.

Geographers and anthropologists have discovered that they shared similar habits and cultural characteristics, including their jewelry and adornments.

It is thought that Native American Jewelry production started as early as 14000 years ago, from the ancient times with agrarian economy, ending with the Bronze age or simply the Neolithic period.

Jewelry, along with other appurtenances, then not only served as decoration but as currency before. More modern materials like gold and silver were drilled and shaped for jewelry. Natives used things like bones, stones, and shells. Of course, it made sense since men were born hunters that brought game to the village for supper, so the remains may have been set aside for other purposes. It was also a period prior to the Industrial Revolution, so the primary industry that time was mining. There were miners and also fisherfolk. Native American Jewelry would naturally come from these sources of livelihood.

These were often hand-carved into ornate jewelry pieces that are made into ceremonial clothing like breastplates for men. The breastplates weren’t particularly designed for real body protection in battle; instead, they were believed to help connect with the spiritual world and maintain balance and harmony.

So what kind of jewelry did the Native Americans make?

Well, it was more than jewelry:

  1. Regalia: the custom clothing and ornaments worn in ceremonies, rites and other important occasions. A tribe’s chief would be a little bit more embossed than the rest of the tribe. Though, unlike today, these personal adornments were more than just a flex. In the absence of a written language, they were also important for communicating and conveying information. Ornate clothing and jewelry made from wampum beads also became a way of communication across tribes. They were made from shell, could-be-like cones, diamonds, and squares and were displayed in a variety of colors each with their own special meaning. For instance:
  • Purple and black - could connote disease, anger, or distress since wampum beads, and white could signify health, peace, and purity. 

Fast-forward a few thousand years, and it was determined that southwestern tribes dug gemstones that is now most commonly associated with Native American jewelry.

Gemstones and Shell with Native American roots

  • Turquoise - has the honor of being one of the oldest gemstones ever used in jewelry. A good thing to know is that turquoise was widely used in ancient Egyptian jewelry and burial masks, generally reserved for Royals only. According to JTV, turquoise is found all over the world with the US hotspots in New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and most notably, Arizona. The Sleeping Beauty mine located in Globe, Arizona gets its name from the mountain in which turquoise was mined. The mountain is said to resemble a sleeping woman lying on her back. The Sleeping Beauty mine held what some considered to be the most desirable color of turquoise, robin’s egg blue— which happened to be in the Crayola set of 64 crayons so you know what it looks like. Aside from its appeal to sight, its smooth and uniform blue color was what most people were yearning to collect. Alas, the mine ceased producing that magnificent turquoise and switched to copper production in 2012 due to the metals’ rise in value. Not to fret, there’s Kingman mine in Arizona to the rescue which has been in the turquoise manufacturing business since the 1880s. Even better, turquoise ranges from blue all the way to green there. Turquoise contained dark web-like veins called matrix often referred to as spider webbing. Come what may, turquoise was and still is a very sacred stone to Southwest Native American Culture, and most of it is still sourced there, too.

  • Coral - has cut its way into more modern Native American jewelry pieces. Coral is a type of organic precious stone introduced to America from the aquatic regions of Spain and Italy. Coral varies in color from white, to pink, to blood red. For the pinks and reds, a deep pink or an orangey washed out red, is thought of as coral currently. The hue of the coral also hints on its value which depends on quality. Pink coral is famously known as “angelskin color”. Red coral is considered as “precious coral”. Nothing eye-popping and royalty-screaming color than red. The deep, blood red coral is obviously the most valuable range.

  • Onyx - is a form of chalcedony or a microcrystalline type of quartz. Like turquoise and coral, it also comes in a range of colors, depending on your preference and budget. Whether you are a purist or colorist when it comes to onyx, this gemstone has got you covered. Black onyx—white onyx dyed pure black and then marketed as black onyx—is the most common color of onyx in some jewelry stores but it also comes with parallel bands of different colors.
  • Jet - is a type of organic gemstone, produced from petrified wood.Sounds rare and amazing, right? If it were a person, it would probably suffer from impostor syndrome from being not as valuable as others perceive you to be. Why? Because it is often perceived as onyx. Well, they may look the same but are actually complete opposites. Jet is weightless while onyx is weighty. Jet isn’t as high-shine when polished unlike Onyx. Another thing, jet is distinguished from onyx since the former is warm to the touch while the latter is cold. 
  • Tiger Shell - is not your usual gemstone or mollusk shell-based valuable. These shells are found from huge sea snails called cypraea tigris. Like its namesake, its spotted appearance resembles a wild animal’s fur like a tiger. The snails carrying these shells are found on the ocean floor, and sea creatures found deep within marine waters in the Indo-Pacific region.

AAANativeArts identified differences in jewelry styles between these 4 tribes:

Navajo



Hopi

Zuni

Santo Domingo

Occupation

Holds the largest reservation in the US

Pueblo tribe who share their reservation with the Arizona Tewa people; reservation is entirely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation. The system of Hopi villages are based around three mesas

The present Zuni pueblo was built on the site of one of the original seven villages.

One of the most conservative of the Pueblo groups; adherence to traditional ways is shown in the strength of the traditional religion

Mastery/Expertise

Master silversmiths; forming a piece of jewelry that uses sterling silver to fit around a particular stone

Master silversmiths who form their jewelry from the sterling silver alone

Master Craftsmen;cutting stones into complex patterns that fit together into the silver, rather than the silver being shaped to fit around the stones

Master workers in drilled stones and shells

Most Popular Stones/Shells/Crafts

Turquoise, black onyx, malachite, and blue azurite, Cabachons

Sterling silver

Carved fetishes/ totem animals

Sterling silver heishi-like bead commonly called liquid silver or heavy, elaborate silver beads, often integrated with turquoise

Technique

shape the sterling silver around the stone, rather than trying to fit the stone into the silver

places a specific shine or patina on their silver, with raised patterns

cut their stones with preciseness and position them into the jewelry; the Zuni artist focuses on the stone, with the silver as almost a matrix to contain the stone

Heishi is made by string cuts of beads, no more than an eighth of an inch long; strand is furbished down to a specific diameter on a wheel

Distinct Style

tendency to be heavier with the silver and more ostentatious with the silverwork encompassing the stone

interior of the cut work is darker because it is not polished; will have a petroglyph, a scene, or sacred symbols inscribed in the silver and can be extremely straightforward or very ornate

silver jewelry usually consists of several small pieces of stone cut to form an intricate pattern when inlaid in the sterling silver

strung necklaces of natural stones and shells, and with a distinct style of bead known as heishi

 

Tips to know if authentic or fake

Check the quality of the materials

Needless to say, this goes on top. Because of the symbolism and rich history of Native American stones, beads, and carved totems, Native American artists should be keen on quality. While it depends on the form or color of the stone sometimes, expert craftsmen or sellers should be honest about the quality of the pieces they display either online or in their physical stores.

If you’re lucky to be around a physical Native American jewelry shop, there’s sterling silver and there’s silver-plated jewelry. If it’s magnetic or pulls metal towards it, then it’s silver-plated because of the presence of nickel.

Research on seller’s inventory

If you come across identical collections all the time, specifically with the similar hallmark or signature of the American Indian artist, that’s a warning sign. You know by now that other than the silversmiths, tribal artists and individual artisans are master handmakers or crafters. This implies that no two items will be the same. So, make an initial research on your entire seller’s inventory.

Inquire about the artist 

This is connected with checking the quality of the pieces. Knowing the individual artist will let you know about his origin, skills, work ethic, attention to details, etc. According to Faust Gallery, detecting a fake is as simple as taking a close look at the craftsmanship. An authentic piece will have no visible glue marks, well-shaped and cut that are consistent in size and no off-balance designs which usually catches the eye of a sharp-eyed inspector. Asymmetry could also be the intention, so it’s important to ask first if that’s meant to be the design. 

Do your advance reading on the usual value of gemstones

This is part of initial research. You have read earlier that a certain gemstone ranges in color, which means one color might not be as valuable as the other one. It depends if you are a purist , or you want parallel, different bands of color. Know the difference, which also fits your budget and preference. You can ask about the mining site, the stones are extracted from, and how they’re produced to really appreciate the reason behind the value.

Shop at guaranteed authentic luxury item shops

If you want authentic jewelry items, surf the net on reputable online luxury brand stores. If you’re balling on a budget, there are also preloved online jewelry shops around the Arizona area. Remember, the most famous shade of Turquoise is found in an Arizona mine. 

The Relux is an Arizona-based pre-loved luxury store. It sells genuine Native American Jewelry. If you’re interested, follow The Relux in their social media platforms, located on its website. You can also join the mailing list for updates on that collective piece of gem. Otherwise, add to cart, now!

 

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