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 Indian Jewelry

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Silversmithing was introduced to Native North America through Europeans. Silver adornment became important to the fur trade during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Eventually, the increasing demand for trade silver fostered North American production to supplement European supplies. Ornaments were crafted in Montreal, Philadelphia, and Boston workshops by European-trained smiths. Active trade in silver was limited to the years between 1760 and 1821, primarily in the Great Lakes, East Coast, and upper Mississippi regions. Plains groups, less intensively involved with the fur trade, received less silver. Subarctic Indians do not seem to have been attracted to silver ornaments.

As gifts of silver ceased with the dwindling fur trade, Indian silversmiths began crafting ornaments for their own people. In the Great Plain cultural are German silver was quite popular, never accepted by eastern Indians, however, Southeastern and Southwestern Indian tribes worked with sterling silver. 

The three most well known silversmithing tribes are the Navajo, the Hopi and the Zuni



Silver arrived to the Southwest via several means. One was in horse gear from Mexico and Spain, derived in turn from Renaissance and medieval times. Plains Indians - often the victims of Navajo horse raids - also had an important influence on Navajo metallurgy. Wire bracelets of copper, brass, or iron were among the earliest metal ornaments worn by the Southwestern Indians. Many of them reached the region in the 1700s through trade with Plains Indians, who had acquired them from French fur traders. The advent of silver in the Southwest coincided with a crucial period of cultural change. Although not an indigenous art form, silver was soon an important part of Navajo life.

Atsidi Sani (the Old Smith), the first Navajo credited with silversmithing, learned the craft from a Mexican smith as early as 1853. Under Atsidi Saniís guidance, the Navajo began to experiment with silver. A new lifestyle evolved: warrior men became herders and, in their free time, silversmiths. The so-called Classic Period of Navajo silversmithing (1880-1900) was a prosperous time. The art mastered, silversmiths created pieces for their own joy. This changed in the early 1900s, when the Santa Fe railroad brought tourists and demand for light-weight silver jewelry. Regardless of the continuing tourist phenomenon, silver, for the Navajo, remains a symbol of wealth and prestige. 

One of the hallmarks of Navajo jewelry is the extensive use of turquoise. The sacred stone of all Native American people of the Southwest, turquoise has a spiritual healing significance. It is said to keep the person who is wearing it from harm. Navajo men and women adorn themselves with jewelry, bracelets being the most popular item. The men and women will often be buried with their jewelry. In the 1920ís and 1930ís, very large and heavy turquoise stones were used.

Most Navajo jewelry is still made in the traditional and classic way. However, some artists are changing styles, forging new ideas and techniques, using inlay of precious and semiprecious stones, channel work, mosaic inlay, and overlay. In addition, the sophisticated use of gold and diamonds has transformed jewelry making from craft to art. The versatility and artistry of Navajo jewelry knows no bounds. 



The Hopi Indians have developed a unique style of jewelry making. The designs and concepts are part of the Hopi religion, life and ceremonies. Their jewelry is called overlay and is quite distinctive. It is made by cutting a design out of one piece of silver and soldering it onto a plain sheet of silver. The design is then oxidized with liver of sulfate to produce beautiful shadows and shading.

Originally Hopi jewelry resembled the jewelry of the Navajo Indians. However, in 1947 Paul Saufkie and Fred Kabotie were successful in getting the Federal Government to fund programs to train Hopi G.Is of World War II in the making of overlay jewelry. This led to the opening of the Hopi Silversmith Cooperative Guild in 1949.

Charles Loloma, a student of Fred Kabotie, was the foremost innovator of contemporary Indian jewelry. In the late 1950ís he was the first to use gold and precious and semiprecious stones. This completely changed the "look" of Hopi jewelry. He became internationally famous, and universally acclaimed as a genius in creating jewelry with multiple kinds of stones, using the landscape of his people for his designs.

Preston Monongye was another innovator of contemporary Indian jewelry. He had a unique style of casting, and his designs differed from previous Hopi designs. Both Charles Loloma and Preston Monongye have died, but their magnificent talents paved the way for other Indian artists.

In the 1930s silversmiths began using hallmarks on their pieces. The hallmarks identified the artists by name, by initials, or by distinctive designs. Today every piece of authentic Hopi overlay jewelry bears the hallmark of the artist. The use of gold, semiprecious and precious stones is becoming more prevalent, but the majority of Hopi jewelry is all sterling silver. Another change is the increasing number of talented women jewelry makers, however the majority of the silversmiths are still men.



In 1872, Lanyade, a Zuni, learned silver working from a Navajo smith named Atsidi Chon, and soon the Zuni were taking the craft in their own direction. Zuni jewelry is made with sterling silver and the contemporary pieces also with 14 carat gold. The use of stones (turquoise, pipestone) and shells is particularly significant in Zuni designs while the silver is secondary, being the means by which the stones and shells are held in place.

Among the Zunis, both men and women wear an abundance of jewelry. Originally, the making of Zuni jewelry was a manís activity. Today, Zuni women also have become jewelry designers and makers. The women and men in some families collaborate, one doing the silver work while the other does the shell and stone cutting, inlaying and polishing. In addition, young people are learning the craft from their family. Contemporary Zuni jewelry reflects the efforts of the silversmith to express an artistic aspiration that will also be commercially satisfying and rewarding. The jewelry making process adds to the richness of Zuni culture and heritage.

Zuni artists are world renowned for their channel inlay patterns, fetish necklaces, cluster, needlepoint and petit point designs. They use turquoise and pipestone, and incorporate silver, jet, lapis lazuli, malachite and shells. Some of the more widely used and exotic shells include mother-of-pearl, coral, white clam, green snail, melon and pink shell. Their jewelry is meticulously crafted and their choice of colors in uniting stones and shells is remarkable in its correctness. The Zuni jewelry is dynamic, exquisite and truly an art form. 


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