Thus began the cultural origins of Native American jewelry, a rich history full of inclusiveness and shared ideals. Tribes influenced each other to new creative heights over the years using different regional items such as porcupine quills, deer antlers, hardwood trees, amber, turquoise, copper, and much more.
The Purpose of Native American Jewelry
Native American jewelry has traditionally served many different purposes aside from mere decoration. Since the Native American tribes did not utilize written language, jewelry soon became a method for members to pass along generational information about their family, personal achievements, and ranking within the tribe. Some Native American jewelry had a deeper ceremonial meaning, while other pieces were simply meant for trade.
Native American Turquoise Jewelry
Turquoise eventually grew to become one of the most prominently used minerals in Native American jewelry over time. Turquoise is believed to contain the powers of the earth and is often used in healing ceremonies. The Navajo tribe is especially well-known for making beautiful Native American turquoise jewelry and they are widely credited for spreading its popularity throughout Southwestern America.
Native American Copper Jewelry
Since turquoise was often found near copper deposits, it wasn’t long before copper found its way into traditional Native American art as well. The Cherokee tribe in particular lived along many copper mines, and jewelry makers quickly incorporated copper into their many beautiful handmade designs. Native American copper jewelry is thought to predate Native American silver jewelry by about 1,200 years.
Native American Silver Jewelry
Introduced by the Spanish sometime in the mid-1800s, the art of silversmithing is a relatively new chapter within the history of Native American jewelry making. Silver Native American jewelry is largely credited to the Navajo tribe, although many other tribes quickly caught on within years.
Modern Native American Jewelry
In the beginning, there were no rules or limitations placed on what Native American jewelry could be made of, and this tradition continues in modern Native American jewelry. The recent inclusion of gold and even titanium in Native American jewelry is no different than the addition of silver in the 1800s.
Just as older Native American jewelry makers slowly added the arts of beading, silversmithing and overlaying, some modern jewelry makers now include machine-cutting in the process as well. As long they are pure of heart and from the earth, any new materials and methods are acceptable.
Discover Native American Jewelry at Home & Away Gallery
Home & Away Gallery proudly provides you with a diversely unique collection of Native American jewelry by contemporary artists. We feature award-winning Native American jewelry makers who can transport you to another place and time, talent like Earl Plummer, Amelia Joe-Chandler, Althea and Joe Cajero, Heidi Bigknife, Decontie & Brown, Mary Tafoya, Henry Abeita and Priscilla Nieto, Deanna Tenorio, Cheryl Arviso, Chris Pruitt, and others.
The Most Celebrated Jewelry-Making Tribes
Though it could be viewed as a competitive race for ideas, traditional Native American jewelry making was always considered a sacred artform first and never a contest. The following Native American tribes will forever be noted for their significant contributions.
Navajo Jewelry Makers
Navajo jewelry makers were among the first to fashion turquoise with silver. Navajo silversmith Atsidi Sani is credited as the first Native American jewelry maker to learn how to smith silver, and he shared his knowledge with his four sons, who in turn passed the tradition onto other tribes. Authentic Navajo silver jewelry is plain, clean, and marked by a special stamped or punched decoration.
Popular Navajo jewelry includes squash blossom petal beads, sandcast jewelry, and naja pendants.
Zuni Jewelry Makers
Zuni jewelry makers are well-known for their silversmithing and lapidary expertise. Keneshde is believed to be the first Zuni tribesman to set turquoise on silver around 1890, though the Navajo are thought to have done this long before. In fact, Navajos and Zunis were often known to work together, Navajos doing the silversmithing, and Zunis setting the turquoise stones in place – a fine example of cultural teamwork.
Traditionally, Zuni jewelers were particularly known for intricate inlay, often featuring birds, animals, or mythical figures.
Hopi Jewelry Makers
Early Hopi jewelry makers created jewelry from bone, seeds, shells, and turquoise. They were among the last of the Southwestern tribes to learn of silversmithing some twenty years after the others due to their remote location. They primarily used copper until this time.
Starting in the 1930s, Hopi jewelry makers became masters of the overlay technique, which oxidizes the bottom silver layer to turn it black, in contrast with a polished top silver layer with intricately carved designs.
Alaskan Native Jewelry Makers
Alaskan Native jewelry uses beads, shells, copper, silver, amber, ivory, turquoise, and other stones (all major trade items at the time). When Europeans began to arrive, Alaskan Native jewelry added glass beads and advanced metalworking methods to their multi-talented jewelry-making arsenal.
Home & Away Gallery primarily focus on Alaskan Native jewelry made of walrus tusk, which is known to sometimes slightly darken over time, though pieces can also involve mammoth and mastodon ivory. Native Alaskan ivory jewelry can usually be traced back to its respective species using advanced natural ivory identification techniques.
Contact Us with Your Questions About Native American Jewelry
If you have any questions about Native American jewelry and its history, we would love to hear from you. Consulting in-person and over the phone is one of the many services we offer to our customers. If you are considering a piece or two of Native American jewelry and would like to discuss any aspect, please call us at (207) 423-8473, or stop in at Home & Away Gallery located in Kennebunk, Maine.