Types Of Native American Jewelry By Tribe

Image of Native American Jewelry by tribe.

Growing up, my Nana (mom’s mom) had a huge collection of Native American Jewelry. Here in Arizona, it is very easy to come by. As I got older and started to learn the history of our State and the Native American Tribes that thrived here, I became curious as to which tribe made each piece that I have inherited from her. This sparked an idea for my next blog post! So, I have decided to explore some of the most well-known tribes and the beautiful jewelry they create!

Native American Materials

Before we get into each of the tribe’s style of jewelry, I want to tell you a little history of how silver came to be one of the most recognizable and commonly used “ingredients” for Native American jewelry.

Roughly 12,000 years ago, Native Americans crafted their jewelry out of shells, stone, and other natural materials. Animal and fish bones, white rocks, corals – all of these materials could be transformed into pendants, beads for jewelry and other decorations. During this time the Native Americans used their jewelry as currency or collateral when trading with the European settlers. It was only in the 19th century that Native Americans began to incorporate silver into their craftsmanship.

The first Native American silversmith was a man named Atsidi Sani who came from the Navajo tribe. Sometime in the 1850’s, he learned his craft from a Mexican man, Nakai Tsosi, to make harnesses for trade. As a silversmith, Atsidi Sani’s most magnificent works were conchos, bracelets and a variety of other jewelry. He eventually passed his knowledge to his four sons and even became a professional teacher of the craft.

It is said that the first time turquoise was used in combination with silver was sometime in the 1900’s by Atsidi Chon, another prominent figure in Navajo and Native American jewelry making.

Ever since then, silver and turquoise have been one of the most important and prominent parts of Native American jewelry crafting! Now, let’s take a deeper look at how this craft and styles have evolved for some of the well-known tribes in the Southwest.

The Navajo

Image of Navajo Inlay Dragonfly pendant from Pink Camel Boutique

Navajo Inlay Dragonfly pendant from Pink Camel Boutique.

Where else to begin than with the tribe of the first Native American silversmiths – the Navajo! The motifs most often found in Navajo jewelry are flowers, leaves, beads, and hand stamp work. The stones used in the jewelry are often large and chunky. Honestly, each one of them is just gorgeous!

The most unique piece of jewelry made by the Navajo tribe is the squash blossom necklace. Ever since the late 19th century, these necklaces have dominated the Navajo jewelry style. They are made up of beaded silver, squash blossom petal beads and the finishing touch is, of course, a naja pendant (in the shape of an inverted crescent). They are unique – not only among Native American jewelry but in the whole necklace sphere!

While the Zuni tribe first perfected Inlay style jewelry, many Navajo Indians have become some of the most prolific inlayers around. The craft of inlay starts with a piece of jewelry, usually in Sterling Silver, with channels or voids that allow the piece to be inlaid with endless combinations of colors and cuts of gemstones. Pink Camel Boutique is honored to be a home for some of the most beautiful pieces of Inlay jewelry from Navajo artisans.

The Hopi

Image of a Hopi Overlay bracelet.

Hopi Overlay Bracelet

The Hopi are the oldest Arizona residents, however, Hopi silversmithing is more of a recent craft. Much of the early Hopi jewelry was made from natural materials such as Turquoise, shells, wood, and seeds. It wasn’t until 1890 when Zuni silversmith Lanyard began trading his silver jewelry among the Hopi in return for their hand-woven native cotton textiles. Over time Lanyard taught his craft to a Hopi named Sikyatala.

Back in the 1930’s, the Hopi, started making their jewelry in the distinctive Overlay style. Overlay is a combination of two layers of sterling silver, similar in shape, with traditional designs carved in them. The bottom piece of silver would be oxidized, turning it black, while the top carved layer would be soldered on – the contrast between them makes the design pop, and it’s also very durable!

While the Hopi jewelry is mostly silver, turquoise also holds a special place. Turquoise holds a great deal of importance to the Native American culture, so it’s not surprising that even among the Hopi, the tribe whose most distinct style of jewelry is all silver, turquoise can still be found in some unique pieces of Hopi jewelry. Within the Hopi tribe, turquoise is said to ward off evil – bags of turquoise hung throughout the entire house deter this negative energy. As a protective stone, it was used by Hopi warriors when going into battle.

The Zuni

Image of a Zuni style bracelet

Zuni Bracelet.

What’s great about the Zuni tribe jewelry is that the stone designs are mostly inlaid, petit point and needlepoint. They are all cut, carved and crafted with the greatest of care. In the early 1800’s the Zuni learned to work with copper and brass salvaged from old kettles. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that a Navajo Silversmith Atsidi Chon introduced silver to the Zuni Tribe.

The most interesting thing about Zuni jewelry are the fetishes – no, it’s not what you think!

Image of a Zuni Bear Fetish

Zuni Bear Fetish

Fetishes are objects that hold a symbolic meaning – they’re used to attract luck, protection, and power. Fetishes are shaped in animal forms because it’s believed that an animal spirit resides in each one – that’s why stone fetishes were carved into the shape of animals. Mostly the little figurines are standalone pieces used for decoration, but, of course, they are also incorporated in jewelry designs.

These figurines are carved from a multitude of stones, with turquoise being the most sacred of all, and serpentine is most common. Of course, a fetish won’t work unless you care for it! The animal spirit hiding inside it must be nurtured. You can do this by combining it with shells, stones, or even arrowheads.

There are many, many more tribes with their own distinctive jewelry styles! This is only a small part of the story and I hope you enjoyed finding out a little history of how Native American tribes craft their jewelry. Today’s Native American jewelers craft their pieces by incorporating traditional designs, while also giving it a modern twist. Check out some of our products to see what modern Native American Jewelry looks like.

Do you have a favorite? I’d love to hear from you!


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