The History of Southwest Native American Jewelry

The History of Southwest Native American Jewelry

Posted by BarlowsGems on 18th Sep 2023

Beautiful Southwest Native American jewelry has a long and rich history.

As early as 1795 Native Americans wore elaborate silver ornaments, but it wasn’t until somewhere in the 1850’s that the Navajos learned the skill of silversmithing from the Mexican Plateros (Silversmiths). The Zuni, who admired the silver jewelry made by Navajo smiths, traded livestock for instruction in working silver. By 1890, Zuni smiths had instructed the Hopi and other smaller tribes of the Pueblos as well.

The centuries-old art of lapidary, preserved by clan and family tradition, remains an important source of cultural pride and income for Native Americans. The term Southwest Native American Jewelry invokes a vision of beautiful hand-wrought silver rings, ear ornaments, bracelets, bow guards, necklaces, concha belts, belt buckles and other items. Mosaic inlay, channel inlay, cluster work, petite point, needle point, and natural rough or polished stone cabochons fashioned from shells, coral, or other gemstones commonly decorate these works of art, with blue turquoise being the most common and recognizable semiprecious stone used.

From the earliest time Turquoise was mined by Native Americans. It had religious and ceremonial value. Many rituals were preformed using Turquoise. Bits of Turquoise were put into the bearing beams of kivas and dwellings to strengthen and protect them and it was used as an offering in the sipapu (hole in the floor) as a symbolic entrance from the underground home of ancestors. Offerings of Turquoise were made in shrines and sacred places. Medicine men used it in diagnostic and healing rituals. It has been found in burial sites. Love potions were made with ground Turquoise. It is no surprise that the Southwest Native American jewelry is most famous for its use of beautiful turquoise.

There are basically four groups of Native Americans in the Southwest who are still producing the authentic and amazing pieces of Native American Jewelry. There are historical, traditional, and geographical reasons for the different materials and techniques these tribes work with and often their jewelry is easily identified as being produced by a certain tribe. But there is an overlap, Hopis are best known for overlay work, but overlay is also used by the other tribes. Inlay is thought of as a Zuni technique, but the Hopis and Kewa Pueblos also do inlay. Sometimes the tribes work together: the Navajos make gorgeous silver boxes, desk sets, and other objects, that are then decorated with intricate inly by the Zunis.

Here is a brief history of those tribes and the work they are well-known for:

Navajo (or Diné)

The Navajo reservation is the largest and it occupies portions of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah.

The Navajo were nomads, who lived mainly by raiding their neighbors. They first learned jewelry design from pieces they took or traded for from the Pueblos.

Atsidi Sani, or "Old Smith" (c. 1828 – 1918), is believed to be the first Navajo silversmith. He learned to work silver from a Mexican smith in 1853.

Since the Navajos were nomads and it was difficult to carry tools, they never developed the tools to do the intricate work like the Zunis produced. Traditionally Navajo work is more massive, plain and simple.

Navajo metalsmiths used cast and wrought work to make buckles, bridles, jewelry, powder chargers, tobacco canteens, and conchos, made from copper, steel, iron, and most commonly, silver.

Early Navajo silversmiths melted coins, flatware, and ingots obtained from traders to get silver. Later, sheet silver and wire acquired from American settlers were also made into jewelry. The punches and stamps used by Mexican leather workers became the first tools used to create these decorations.

Navajo jewelers began sand casting silver around 1875; silver was melted and then poured into a mold, which was carved from sandstone.

Turquoise is closely associated with Navajo jewelry, but it was not until 1880 that the first turquoise was known to be set in silver. The Navajo preferred to use turquoise as an accent, to enhance the large piece of silverwork. Turquoise became much more readily available in ensuing decades. Coral and other semi-precious stones came into common use around 1900.


The Hopi reservation is in northeast Arizona and compete surrounded by the Navajo reservation.

The Hopi learned silverwork from the Zunis. Sikyatata became the first Hopi silversmith in 1898. However, their isolation made acquiring silver difficult, so the Hopi primarily stuck to shell and stone for jewelry use until the 1930s and 1940s, and very few Hopi learned how to work silver. In the 1930’s overlay style was introduced to the Hopis, but it wasn’t until the 1940’s that a push was made to have the Hopi make more silver jewelry. In 1946, Willard Beatty, director of the Indian Education for the US Department of the Interior developed a silversmithing program for Hopi veterans of World War II. The veterans learned cutting, grinding and polishing, as well as die-stamping and sand-casting. Those students then taught other tribe members the art of silversmithing.

The Hopi do cast and wrought work, but Hopi silversmiths are best known for their overlay technique used in silver jewelry designs. Hopi designs are based on abstract art, petroglyphs, kachina figures, and simply life forms, such as dragonflies and butterflies. The Hopi do not use as much turquoise or other stones.

Kewa Pueblo

Kewa Pueblo, formerly known as Santo Domingo, are located southwest of Santa Fe in New Mexico. The Kewa Pueblo are one of seven Pueblo tribes that farmed along the Rio Grande River.

For centuries the Pueblos mined Turquoise at the Cerillos, the largest and most productive Native American Turquoise mine near Santa Fe as well as at other turquoise locations. They made the turquoise, shells, and jet into beads and mosaics that they traded with other tribes. In ancient times the Pueblos used whatever red colored rock they could find for contrast, but the Spanish introduced them to red coral, which immediately became their favorite.

The Pueblos learned silversmithing from the Navajos in the late 1800’s. They do cast and wrought silver work, channel, and mosaic, and big stone and cluster styles.

The Kewa Pueblo are the most productive of all the Pueblos in bead making and silverwork. They are particularly known for heishi necklaces, a style of necklace consisting of tear-shaped, flat "tabs" strung on heishe shell or turquoise beads. These beautiful and colorful necklaces are still being made today in large quantities by Kewa artists.


The primary Zuni reservation adjoins the Navajo reservation in western New Mexico near Gallup, with a smaller contingency in northern Arizona.

Zuni people are deeply ceremonial and religious and that is reflected in their jewelry design.

Zunis have been using stone, shell, jet, bone and wood, in carvings, inlay and mosaic for hundreds of years and are still considered strong lapidary artist. Zuni carvers are well-known for their stone and shell fetishes (small figure carvings), which they traded with other tribes and even non-Natives. Fetishes are carved from turquoise, amber, shell, or onyx. Today, Zuni bird fetishes are often set with heishe beads in multi-strand necklaces.

They learned silversmithing from the Navajos. Lanyade became the first Zuni silversmith in 1872. Because they were lapidary artists, they incorporated large stones into their designs. They used all the scraps from cutting stones to create mosaics and clusterworks, and one result was their lovely bracelets with rows of stones. Their silverwork is used mostly to hold the stones and they commonly use wire to keep their jewelry lighter.

The Zuni Pueblo people in west-central New Mexico alone estimate that still today some 80 percent of working adults “are involved in the cottage, home-based industry of producing traditional Zuni arts.”

The establishment of the railroad, with the accompanying tourist trade and the advent of trading posts, heavily influenced Zuni and other Southwest Native American jewelry making and materials. In the early 20th century, trader C.G. Wallace influenced the direction of Zuni silver and lapidary work to appeal to a non-Native audience. Wallace was aided by the interstate highways such as Route 66 and I-40, and promotion of tourism in Gallup and Zuni. Wallace employed local Zuni people as clerks, jewelry makers, and miners. He provided tools, equipment, and silversmithing supplies to the jewelers with whom he did business. Wallace influenced Zuni art by encouraging the use of specific materials that sold well and discouraging others that weren’t as popular.

The Native Americans do not do production lines, each of their pieces are unique. Some people may hire Native Americans to work for them in a production line, so that they can legally label it as such, but often those pieces are largely commercially produced and not true works of art.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) of 1990 says that art and craftwork made after 1935 can only be marketed as “Indian,” “Native American,” or “Alaska Native,” or product of a particular Indian Tribe if it’s made by a member of a Tribe that is federally recognized or officially recognized by a state, or an individual who has been certified as a non-member Indian artisan by the Tribe.

In the 1970’s there was an explosion of desire of Southwest Native American Jewelry and for Turquoise. Unfortunately, this did lead to an explosion of counterfeit jewelry. Though often hard to enforce, in 2017 there was an investigation of two networks of suppliers that spanned New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, California, Colorado, Alaska, Nevada and the Philippines. The investigation ultimately led to 16 search warrants, and the confiscation of $320,000 and 200,000 pieces of jewelry, the largest operation ever under the Arts and Crafts Act.

Please be sure and check back next month as I will be discussing varies types of jewelry design by the Southwest Native Americans.