From the geometric precision of Zuni motifs to the fire-red coral or rich blue turquoise of a Navajo squash blossom necklace, authentic Native American jewelry offers a striking combination of elegant materials and awe-inspiring artisanry unique to the American Southwest. In this article we will jump into Native American jewelry with a brief history of the tradition followed by some of the most celebrated examples and tips for determining authenticity and starting a collection.
Native American Jewelry: A Brief History
Native American culture and jewelry have gone hand in hand for thousands of years. The earliest adornments, like 14,000-year-old carved bone earrings found in Alaska, were typically worn along with pendants and other accents as signifiers of status within a given community. After the arrival of European culture in the sixteenth century, jewelry also became a vehicle for trade. By the late nineteenth century, Native American jewelry designs expanded to incorporate more materials like silver, in part owing to the exposure of many Native American populations to the techniques of metalworking. The popularity of authentic Native American jewelry soared from the dawn of the twentieth century until roughly the 1970s, with trading posts and jewelers of the American Southwest becoming hubs for enthusiasts and collectors.
Key Cultures for Authentic Native American Jewelry
From a collector’s perspective, the Native American cultures best known for their jewelry are those originally based in the American Southwest. Namely, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni jewelry is often the most coveted. Before we look to examples, let’s highlight these cultures and their jewelry-making traditions:
Zuni and Hopi
The Zuni (A’shiwi) and Hopi (Moki) peoples are historically considered part of the Pueblo Indians, meaning that both cultures lived communally and farmed in pueblos across modern Arizona and New Mexico. Zuni artisans developed a jewelry style known for its intricate and vibrant patterns conjured through meticulously cut and inlaid stones. Meanwhile, Hopi jewelers used less stone and instead emphasized silver metalwork.
The Navajo (Diné) people were semi-nomadic, living in small encampments across northeastern Arizona and into Utah and Colorado. Navajo jewelry makers incorporated many semi-precious stones, including primarily turquoise but also coral, malachite, onyx, and mother of pearl, and excelled at working the silver to fit each stone.
With these basics in mind, let’s look at some popular categories for authentic Native American jewelry collecting.
Native American Squash Blossoms
The squash blossom is perhaps the most quintessential example of Native American bejeweled brilliance. It takes its name from the characteristic fluted extension from the necklace beads that resemble the petals of a blossom. These strands typically culminate with the form of a naja, a horseshoe or crescent-like shape that is believed to serve as a talisman to ward off evil forces. The naja and the accompanying necklace beads are often inset with pieces of turquoise and other semi-precious stones to make striking statement pieces for any jewelry collection. Accordingly, these necklaces can achieve incredible prices. For example, a Zuni squash blossom sold in a 2013 Sotheby’s sale for more than $23,000.
Authentic Native American Bracelets and Earrings
Of course, the beauty of Native American jewelry transcends the squash blossom. Similar skill is lavished on bracelets and necklaces that can be paired with necklaces to make a scintillating set. These pieces also give collectors access to pieces by some of the most acclaimed makers, like Charles Loloma, at lower price points given their smaller scale.
Men’s Native American Jewelry: Belts, Cuffs, and Bolos
Authentic Native American jewelry also includes spectacular pieces for men. Men’s Native American Jewelry can include bold cuffs as well as striking belts crafted with silver and semi-precious stones. Also available is the unique bolo tie, a Southwestern invention of the early twentieth century that is purportedly based on the clasped neckerchiefs that Navajo men would wear while working.
Tips for Seeking Out Authentic Native American Jewelry
Given these exceptional examples, it is easy to see why collectors flock to authentic Native American jewelry. Seasoned collectors do so, though, with a strong understanding of what to look for when assessing Native American jewelry at auction. Here are some general tips to keep in mind as you start your search:
Generally speaking, collectors typically seek out Native American jewelry made between the 1870s and the 1940s. This period saw higher silver content and the highest level of hand craftsmanship. It also witnessed the use of untreated turquoise. Later examples from the second half of the twentieth century often incorporated turquoise treated with resin, which seals the stone to “stabilize” it and also enhances the stone’s color unnaturally.
Note the Naming
If a piece of Native American jewelry you’ve been eyeing is labeled as “Indian style”, beware: this is often a catch-all term for imitation or mass-produced reproductions of authentic designs. On the other hand, often at auction Native American jewelry will be labeled as “old pawn,” which can be a good sign: Old pawn pieces are typically those that date to this desirable period before the 1940s.
Seek Signs of Wear
Authentic Native American jewelry from the turn of the century should show some signs of wear. This might include worn edges of a cuff bracelet or scratches to a squash blossom clasp.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
When in doubt, ask the auctioneer or dealer who is selling Native American jewelry as they should be able to identify the provenance of their pieces. You can also seek out a dealer who is a member of organizations like the Antique Tribal Arts Dealers Association (ATADA), as this ensures that the dealer is selling authentic Native American jewelry while maintaining the integrity of its history and cultural origins.
With these tips in mind and a sense of where you want to start your collection, now is the time to explore the rich array of authentic Native American jewelry available on today’s auction market.