Native American Jewelry Style Guide
Shopping for authentic Native American jewelry can be a daunting task. You might see something that inspires you, but you have no idea how to find it. Knowing how to identify jewelry by style and tribe can be incredibly helpful in guiding your search to the beautiful piece of native jewelry that you’re looking for.
Identifying Zuni, Navajo and Hopi Jewelry
While there are some similarities between these three main Native American jewelry producing tribes in the Southwest, the differences are often easier to distinguish than you might think.
The Zuni jewelry makers are known primarily for their intricate stonework designs. Stones for these pieces are cut down and shaped for placement in precise and intricate designs. The main styles of Zuni jewelry are Clusterwork, Needlepoint, Petit Point and Inlay. Clusterwork, Needlepoint, and Petit Point are all characterized by small stones, typically turquoise or red coral, delicately shaped for consistency within the design. The pieces are then set within silver bezels in repetitive designs, most commonly in concentric circles.
Zuni Clusterwork Jewelry
Clusterwork can be distinguished by the larger size of the stones used, like this award-winning piece by Luwayne and Lorraine Waatsa.
Zuni Petit Point Jewelry
Petit Point work is closer in style to Needlepoint in that the stones are much smaller than is typically found in Clusterwork and are often found in more of a teardrop shape. This piece by Trudy Quetawki is a prime example of Petit Point Jewelry work.
Zuni Needlepoint Jewelry
Needlepoint is a style characterized by very thinly shaped stones, often resembling narrow grains of rice. Dan Etsate produced this stunning example of needlepoint.
Zuni Inlay Jewelry
Inlay is a type of stonework that is characterized by meticulously shaped stones worked to fit precisely in order to achieve the desired pattern. Zuni inlay traditionally includes Turquoise, Red Coral, Black Jet, and Mother of Pearl. There are two main types of Inlay, stone-to-stone inlay and channel inlay. When the stones are shaped and worked to sit directly next to each other this is considered stone-to-stone inlay. The inlaid stonework is sometimes worked in-between metal channels that separate the stones from each other. The piece on the top is a beautiful example of stone-to-stone inlay work by Gladys and Leslie Lamy. The bottom is a more contemporary piece by Larry Loretto that exemplifies the channel inlay style.
Zuni Fetish Necklaces
Zuni Fetishes are a fundamental art form for the Zuni tribe. Fetishes are hand carved figurines, often of animals, that hold special symbolic significance for the Zuni peoples. There are only about 20 artists currently producing Zuni necklaces on the Zuni reservation, however, cheaper imitations do exist at a much lower level of quality. These necklaces typically come in either a multi-strand necklace style (on top by Rosita Kaamasee) or a single strand with larger fetishes and more attention to detail (on the bottom by Andres Quandelacy). These single strand necklaces typically have on large fetish serving as a pendant.
In contrast to the Zunis, Navajo jewelry can be characterized by chunky, and occasionally uncut stones often set within a Sterling Silver bezel. The pieces tend to be heavier in weight and gauge than Zuni Jewelry and the metalwork often contains stamp work or designs created through ‘Tufa’ or Sandstone casting. The large stones and ornate metalwork were considered signs of status and wealth among the Spaniard, from whom the Navajo learned the majority of their jewelry working technique. There are a few notable types of pieces in Navajo jewelry making:
Navajo Squash Blossom Necklaces
The squash blossom necklace is a staple piece in the world of Native American jewelry and definitely deserves an honorable mention. While you can find squash blossoms produced by jewelry artists from Hopi and Zuni jewelry artists, it originates from the Navajo tribe who found inspiration from the Spaniards. The necklace derives its name from the small flower-like pieces that protrude outward from strand portion of the necklace, resembling squash-blossoms. Typically, you will find 6 blossoms on each side of the necklace, however, this number can definitely vary. Squash Blossoms are often accompanied by a crescent shaped pendant called the ‘Naja’ in Navajo.
Navajo Concho Belt (Repossé Technique)
The concho belt is another staple piece in Native American Jewelry. The word ‘Concho’ comes from the Spanish word for Shell because the belt itself holds several shell-like pieces fashioned all along the circumference of the belt itself. More often than not these ‘Shells’ are punctuated by small ornamental stamped butterflies placed in-between each of the shells. Concho Belts are a prime example of Repossé style metalwork which is a style of ornamental metalwork achieved by hammering the reverse side of a piece of malleable metal to create design work on the front. The piece below is a classic example of Repossé work by Paul Begay.
Hopi Jewelry stands out against Zuni and Navajo through its absence of stonework. These pieces are commonly made from Sterling Silver and often feature detailed Native American symbols. Hopi jewelry is often created through a process referred to as Overlay.
Hopi Overlay Jewelry
Hopi overlay jewelry is created by soldering two layers of metal, often silver, together. The bottom layer a design etched into the surface and is allowed to oxidize, which leaves the surface almost black. The top layer contains cut out designs and shape and is laid over the base layer and then soldered together, giving the piece a beautiful multidimensional quality. The piece below is a prime example of the Hopi Overlay technique by Ben Mansfield.
Santo Domingo Pueblo Jewelry
The Santo Domingo Pueblo is located along the Rio Grande River and is less prominent than the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni Jewelry makers. They are known primarily for a type of necklace Heishe or Heishi Necklace.
The Santo Domingo Heishi Necklace is made shaping shell or stone, often turquoise, into small disk shapes and stringing them together to form a simple yet elegant piece of Native American jewelry. The disks are shaped into various sizes and often tend to get larger at the base of the necklace. Some pieces include two loops called ‘Jacla’ which original were worn as earrings, but have since been moved to the base of the heishi necklace for ornamental purposes. The piece featured below is by Clinton Pete and is an example of a perfectly executed Heishi necklace in traditional style.