Understanding the Tribal Differences in American Indian Jewelry Style

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Did you know that the style of American Indian jewelry is largely dependent on which tribe makes it? Here's a guide to help you understand the differences. 

People who love turquoise jewelry usually discover that they are also fans of American Indian jewelry. Many southwestern American Indian tribes have used turquoise in their jewelry for generations. The level of care and skill that goes into making each piece makes their jewelry precious even to this day.

However, don't think that every tribe has the same style of jewelry. Just like tribes have their own distinctive cultures and traditions, they also have different traditions and styles when it comes to jewelry.

The next time you're on the lookout for a new item to add to your collection, use this guide to help you figure out its origins. While there are thousands of tribes in the U.S., we'll be focusing on four that have very distinctive jewelry-making styles.

Read on for our guide to understanding tribal differences in American Indian jewelry.

Navajo

We'll start off with Navajo, the second largest American Indian tribe in the United States. While you've almost certainly heard the name before, you might not be as familiar with how to recognize their style of jewelry.

However, chances are high that you've seen Navajo jewelry before without recognizing it. Since the tribe is so famous, their jewelry is also widespread throughout the country.

They're best known for being fantastic silversmiths. One of the most distinctive features is that Navajo smiths don't cut the stones that they use to fit a silver mold. Instead, they shape the silver around the stone.

This means each piece of jewelry is unique. The stones in this style of American Indian jewelry are also usually bigger, since they haven't been whittled down to fit anything.

Navajo jewelry often uses turquoise as the precious stone in their jewelry, but this isn't the only stone they use. You can also find pieces with black onyx, coral, or blue azurite.

There are also traditional designs like the squash blossom necklace, which is probably the most distinctive and recognizable.

Zuni

The Zuni tribe takes the opposite approach to creating silver jewelry pieces. Unlike Navajo jewelry makers, Zuni artisans cut the stones to fit the silver.

They're not just cut to fit in a pendant with a simple design, though. The stones are cut very precisely to create beautifully intricate designs. The silver acts more as a complement to the stone and a way to hold it all together than as a mold for the stone itself.

In clusterwork jewelry, you'll find stones that have been cut slightly larger, while petit point jewelry features tinier stones in more complex patterns.

As beautiful as these pieces are, the Zuni tribe is most famous for their carved totems, called fetishes. The animal fetishes are traditionally believed to carry the spirit of the animal that they represent.

Whoever was wearing the fetish would be able to embody the spirit of that animal, as long as he or she took proper care of it.

Fetishes were usually made out of serpentine, though turquoise was also used often since it's so sacred. There are many different materials used to make them, though, so don't be surprised if you find one made of amber or marble.

Traditionally, fetishes were made out of animals that are native to the southwestern United States, like the eagle, wolf, rabbit, bear, and frog.

These are still some of the most common designs you'll see today, but modern artisans are more likely to include non-traditional animals like dinosaurs or insects.

Hopi

The Hopi reservation is surrounded by the Navajo reservation, but they've kept their own traditions when it comes to making jewelry. Hopi American Indian jewelry is easy to spot. They're known for their silver overlay style of jewelry, unique to artists from this tribe.

Silversmiths carve designs inspired by cultural art and traditions into a top layer of silver. Sometimes, they might carve a specific scene or religious symbols into it as well. After they're done, they oxidize the bottom layer of silver so that it darkens. When the two layers are combined into one piece, the carved designs clearly stand out. These can be very intricate or quite simple, but either way, the design gives the jewelry a unique multidimensional look.

You have to be careful when you clean or polish a Hopi silver overlay piece, because you might accidentally remove the color of the darker layer.

Hopi artists don't usually use stones since they're so skilled at silversmithing. Jewelry made with special stones like turquoise are often for rituals or certain ceremonies.

Santo Domingo

The Santo Domingo tribe, or Kewa, don't use silver at all. Instead, they've kept a more ancient tradition of creating American Indian jewelry. They create strung necklaces out of stones, shells, or specially crafted "heishi" beads.

Heishi necklaces are usually made by shaping pieces of shell or stone (often turquoise) into small disk or tube shapes. The strand is also cut down to a specific diameter. Heishi necklaces that are especially well made have very smooth strands.

The most famous design is the thunderbird necklace. This style originated in the 1930s, when traditional materials were hard to come by. Instead of using turquoise or polished stone, artists used materials like animal bone and other repurposed items to create gorgeous jewelry.

In the past, heishi beads were ground and shaped entirely by hand. A lot of them are made with machines today, but you can still find artists who undertake the entire process by hand.

Because it's so labor intensive, it's not uncommon for entire families in the Santo Domingo tribe to work on creating heishi necklaces.

Find Authentic American Indian Jewelry

Now that you know how to identify which tribe each jewelry design comes from, you can be even more informed the next time you pick up some traditional turquoise jewelry.

Inspired and ready to add to your collection today? Take a look at the jewelry we have in stock. We work directly with turquoise mines and Native artisans to make sure to bring you the best and most authentic products.

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