Native American Jewelry Techniques: A Complete Guide
Have you always been fascinated with jewelry techniques? Go on a fascinating journey to the world of Native American jewelry making with this guide
Native American jewelry is unique in its elegant simplicity and close ties with the natural world.
The techniques used by Native Americans in jewelry has been fascinating the western world for centuries. How can you make something so refined and balanced without resorting to high-end goldsmithing?
Join us on a fascinating journey to the world of Native American jewelry techniques with this guide.
Understanding the Uniqueness of Native American Art
Many westerners fail to grasp the reasons why Native American art is so unique. While the western world has only known of America for a few centuries, the fact is that civilizations rose and fell across the Americas for millennia.
Native American history is rich and diverse, and only by embracing this diversity you may hope to understand the uniqueness of their crafts. From shell bead necklaces and silver bracelets to exquisite turquoise creations and ornamental pieces, Native American jewelry is as amazing as it is diverse.
Let's see the most important jewelry techniques used by Native American craftsmen throughout the ages:
Silversmithing by Native Americans is relatively new. The locals learned techniques to work metal from the Spanish who arrived in New Mexico and Arizona in the middle of the 16th century.
While Native Americans worked for Spanish metalsmiths, they observed their methods and used them in crafting unique pieces with locally mined turquoise. This created the amazing turquoise jewelry of the Navajo that has now become almost synonymous with Native American Jewelry.
Some of the early creations of Native American blacksmiths were influenced by European craftsmanship. They drew inspiration from belt buckles, buttons, knives, and horseshoes, blending these images with their own distinct culture.
Casting Amazing Creations in Silver
Native Americans used two methods to cast silver: Tufa Casting and Sand Casting. Both methods require a great deal of skill and labor. The delicate nature of both methods means that Native American Jewelry cannot be mass produced.
Tufa casting takes its name from a soft volcanic rock that Native Americans used to carve the initial shape of the piece. Tufa casting makes jewels with unique texture, as the stone is not smooth.
Moreover, as tufa stone is relatively sensitive, it degrades after the piece is cast. This means that each piece of jewelry made with tufa casting is unique in texture, as the mold is literally destroyed after the piece is created.
Sand casting involves creating a reverse mold in a mix of sand and oil. The reverse mold is removed and molten silver is poured onto its imprint to create the new piece. Just like tufa casting, sand cast molds are effectively destroyed after each use, resulting in unique creations.
After the casting process, Native American silver jewelry undergoes a range of overlay or stamping techniques that give it its unique design.
Navajo craftsmen have perfected the technique of stamping. To stamp silverwork, the craftsman must create each impression on a sheet of silver with a single hammer blow. Most creations require several stamps to complete, and a single error means that the craftsman must start over again.
Used by Hopi and Santo Domingo tribes, the overlay technique requires two pieces of silver. The craftsman carves the design on one piece, and solders the design on the other piece. The Hopi in particular refined this technique so much, that their creations used only silver and no stones.
Native American jewelry is sometimes polished to a smooth surface, but some craftsmen prefer the unique texture of tufa casting or a fine imprinted layer.
This is also the main difference between Hopi and Navajo overlay silver. The Hopi leave a fine texture on the main layer, while the Navajo prefer perfectly smooth layers.
Most finishing techniques serve to give the piece extra depth. For example, some craftsmen buff sterling silver pieces with soft fabric, while others prefer steel wool, which creates a pleasantly textured surface known as brushed silver.
In addition to brushed silver, pieces can be treated with a chemical solution to create oxidized silver, which is almost black. Combining brushed with oxidized silver in the piece's design allows craftsmen to create sophisticated patterns on the metal.
Ancient Native American Jewelry Techniques
In addition to silversmithing, which Native Americans adopted and elevated to new heights, older techniques are still used to create amazing Native American Jewelry pieces.
The creation of carved fetishes dates back to Native American prehistory. The most common materials used in creating this religious jewelry was common stone, animal bones and horns, shells, corals, and more rarely semi-precious stones like turquoise.
There are various techniques using traditional tools to crave stone or bone into shapes, but most have been superseded by their western equivalents.
Heishi refers to the iconic image of shell bead necklaces, but it can also refer to tiny beads of any material.
The Santo Domingo communities are famous for their tiny beads made of shell, coral or stone. These are cut into minuscule pieces and then carefully drilled through the center. The beads are then strung together tightly and polished against a turning wheel.
The process to create Heishi jewelry is labor intensive and requires significant precision.
Navajo Artisans Today
As we've seen, Native American jewelry has the power to bestow an air of refined elegance to any outfit.
Today, a few dedicated craftsmen still practice the old traditions of metalsmithing and binding turquoise in fine silver. To see some authentic creations and examine the craftsmanship, check out our blog, the authority on turquoise jewelry.