The most popular jewelry styles from the Southwest are made by the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Santo Domingo tribes. While individual artists may make jewelry in a style usually associated with a particular tribe that may not be their own, these are the general, most common differences in the jewelry styles created by these Southwest tribes.
Navajo jewelry styles
The Navajo Nation occupies the largest reservation in the United States. The reservation encompasses some of the starkest, most desolate, and absolutely magnificent scenery in the world. The Searchers was filmed on the Navajo Reservation, as was Cheyenne Autumn and several other John Ford movies.
The Navajo tribe is best known for it’s master silversmiths who are experts at creating a piece of jewelry that uses sterling silver to fit around a particular stone.
Turquoise is the most popular stone used, but other stones such as black onyx, malachite, and blue azurite are common. Cabachons made from sea shells such as mother of pearl and pau shell are also used, and coral accents are highly prized.
When the Navajo artist works a piece of turquoise or other stone, they shape the sterling silver around the stone, rather than trying to fit the stone into the silver. The stone itself is not cut to a specific shape to fit into the silver. Navajo jewelry pieces have a tendency to be heavier with the silver and more ornate with the silverwork surrounding the stone.
Zuni jewelry styles
The Zuni are one of the Pueblo tribes. They are farmers who are noted for basketry, pottery, turquoise jewelry, and weaving. The original seven Zuni villages are usually identified with the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola, which were publicized by Marcos de Niza. In 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado attacked the villages, thinking that they had vast stores of gold. The villages were abandoned in the Pueblo revolt of 1680. The present Zuni pueblo was built on the site of one of the original seven villages.
The Zuni tribe is known for master craftsmen who are experts at cutting stones into intricate patterns that fit together into the silver, rather than the silver being shaped to fit around the stones.
The Zuni cut their stones with precision and place them into the jewelry, basically setting the stones the same way a contemporary jeweler would. The Zuni artist concentrates on the stone, with the silver as almost a matrix to contain the stone. Zuni silver jewelry usually contains many small pieces of stone cut to form an intricate pattern when inlaid in the sterling silver.
Zuni inlay is some of the most beautify jewelry you will ever see. Naturally, the more intricate the design, the more expensive the piece.
The Zuni are also famous for their carved fetishes. Fetishes are totem animals, intricately carved. They are said to possess powers of the animal they represent, which can be passed on to the owner. They can be huge or tiny. At one time, fetishes were limited to traditional animals and birds of the Southwest, but now you see dinosaurs, armadillos, alligators, polar bears, and other non-traditional animals. Fetishes can be carved from many different stones and minerals and will come in a variety of colors and price ranges from a few dollars to thousands.
They are very fragile. If you are placing a strand of fetishes down on a tabletop or glass top, do so carefully. They can be easy to break. If they do break, use an adhesive like Super Glue to repair them. The breakage degrades the actual value, but most people who like fetishes are into them for the artistry. If a known artist made the fetishes, you don’t lose much value even if the fetish has been repaired.
Fetishes can be strung to form necklaces, or designed to stand on a table or shelf. Often tabletop fetishes are decorated with a “pack” of intricately arranged tiny feathers and smaller stones that are tyed to the fetish’s back.
Hopi jewelry styles
The Hopi are another Pueblo tribe who share their reservation with the Arizona Tewa people. The Hopi reservation is entirely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation. The system of Hopi villages are based around three mesas. Walpi is the oldest village on First Mesa, established in 1690 after the villages at the foot of mesa Koechaptevela were abandoned for fear of Spanish reprisal after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Hopis also occupy the Second Mesa, while the Third Mesa is occupied by the Tewa people.
Hopi artisans usually do not work with stones at all. They are master silversmiths who form their jewelry from the sterling silver alone.
The Hopi silverwork style is much different from that of the Navajo and Zuni. The Hopi put a specific shine or patina on their silver, with raised patterns. The interior of the cut work is darker because it is not polished. Be very careful when cleaning Hopi silver because you do not want to destroy the darker colors. Hopi silver will have a petroglyph, a scene, or sacred symbols etched in the silver and can be extremely simple or very ornate.
Santo Domingo jewelry styles
The Santo Domingo reservation is located about twenty-five miles southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Santo Damingo name for themselves is “Kiua,” and they speak an eastern Keresan langauge. Despite regular contact with outsiders and participation in the Regional and national pottery and silver jewelry market, Santo Domingo remains one of the most conservative of the Pueblo groups. Their adherence to tradtional ways is manifested in the strength of the traditional religion, the regular use of the native language, the retention of traditional clothing, and the maintenance of traditional kin ties.
The Santo Domingo artisans work in drilled stones and shells. They are not known for silversmith work at all. The only silver they may use is a sterling silver heishi-like bead commonly called liquid silver or heavy, ornate silver beads, often combined with turquoise.
The Santo Domingo jewelry artists are best known for their strung necklaces of natural stones and shells, and with a particular style of bead known as heishi.
Heishi is made by string cuts of beads, no more than an eighth of an inch long. The strand is polished down to a specific diameter on a wheel.
The way to tell if heishi is of quality is to run your fingers down the strands. The smoother the strand, the more valuable it is.
Heishi is a family tradition. It is a job that requires the participation of a whole family. When you get a piece, the kids may have strung the original beads, which had been cut by their grandfather. Their father and mother may work the polishing wheel. Grandmother may have designed the piece.
Sterling silver heishi, usually called liquid silver, is made by pouring silver into molds. Necklaces range anywhere from one strand to two hundred. Liquid silver is quite beautiful when a pendent is strung on a large necklace of more than fifty strands. Liquid Silver is not necessarily Native-made. You aren’t paying for a specific artist to make the liquid silver, rather, you are paying for the weight of the silver and the artist’s time to string the many strands of tiny silver beads.
The Santo Domingo Pueblo artisans also carve fetishes, but their religion only allows them to carve birds.