Native American Jewelry: The Ulimate Guide

Posted by Maria L on

Are you looking to learn more about Native American jewelry? Check out this ultimate guide! We dig deep into the history as well as how to identify Native American jewelry from different tribes.




Do you remember the first time you saw a piece of Native American jewelry?

We may not have realized at first what it was that we were looking at. The first thought may be that of amazement of the beauty of a turquoise stone. Or perhaps it was the complexity of the silver works resting on the outside of some Native American bracelets. Whatever the case, what you saw was absolutely beautiful and sparked an interest to dig deeper into what Native American jewelry actually is. Well, we decided to create this incredibly comprehensive guide to inform and teach you exactly what Native American is, where it came from, and where it is going.

I’ll admit, one of the first pieces of jewelry I laid my eyes on that sparked my interest was a stunning Native American necklace. This necklace had a huge butterfly pendant that contained turquoise and purple shell, situated into sterling silver. What a beauty it was! Next, my grandfather just so happened to have a huge Native American ring that he traded a Native American artist, you should have seen the spiderweb turquoise stone on that ring, it was spectacular.

The big question is what is Native American jewelry and how can I tell if if something is authentic?

What is Native American Jewelry?

Native American jewelry refers to items made by indigenous peoples for personal adornment. It is  also used for ceremonies, trade and show. It is a beautiful form of artistic expression.



This jewelry is typically made from natural material such as turquoise stones, coral, shell, claws, bones, precious metals, hardwood, vegetal fibers and other semi precious stones. Man-made beads and quillwork are also used. Beaders, carvers, lapidaries and metalsmiths take these materials and make Native American jewelry.

The jewelry includes earrings, bracelets, necklaces, rings and pins. It also takes in items such as wampum.



Native American jewelry has a history dating back thousands of years. Bone earrings were found in Alaska that have been dated back 12,000 years. Many turquoise pieces, which are often used in Southwestern Native American jewelry, have been found in the Ancestral Pueblo sites of Chaco Canyon.

The ancient art of beadmaking saw the creation of the beads from different materials, then sewn into clothing or strung into necklaces. Bead necklaces are often called heishi from the Santo Domingo word for shell. Shells are the most common material for beads. Northeastern Indians carved shells called wampum. They also carved shells into bird, fish and other shaped pendants.

Where did Native American jewelry come from?

Before the coming of the Europeons the many Native American tribes had unique cultures and styles. Without banks, wealth had to be carried with the people in their jewelry. Their necklaces and bracelets were often signs of honor. Each tribe has different styles and techniques that they utilize to produce their specific Native American jewelry. Let’s look into each tribe specifically and then we’ll dive into their specific techniques:

Native American jewelry tribes are existing historical clans, nations or communities of indigenous peoples in the Americas. There are 566 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes in the United States. Every tribe has a special culture and language.

Native American jewelry tribes have beautiful cultures which guide the people from one end of life to the other. Every part of their life is governed by a prayerful approach.

Most scientists believe ancestors of today's tribes came from Asia across a land bridge at the present Bering Strait of present Alaska. It may have been as long ago as 20,000 years that the first of several migrations occurred.

Native American tribes gradually formed unique cultures from these peoples. Over time they grew and passed on ways to govern themselves.

From the earliest days of the United States the country has been enriched by the Native American jewelry tribes. Benjamin Franklin is said to have borrowed the ideas of the Iroquois Confederacy as a way to organize the original colonies. Many American cities began as Native American villages. They grew from there to trading posts and forts to what they are today. This was the case for Chicago. Detroit, Saint Louis and many other cities.

The tribes however were often times devastated by Caucasian diseases and policies. During the 18th and 19th centuries the U.S. government often forced Native Americans from their homelands to reservations. It wasn't until the l920s that the Snyder Act , due to many Natives Americans serving in World War I, recognized Native American people as citizens.

Many in the majority culture saw little value in Native American culture, and during the Boarding School Era tried to get rid of cultural ties with the Native American youth. This led in some cases to a breakdown of the Native family and tribal strength. Young adults began to move off the reservations.

The Native American tribes however struggled on. They knew the value of their culture and sought to preserve it. Their numbers gradually started to increase, and today many American tribes are building up their cultures.

During World War II over 24,000 Native Americans served in the military. The Navajo Codetalkers worked out a code the enemy could not crack, and brought honor on Native people. They and other Native servicemen returned to their reservation homes after the war, and became strong supports in tribal life and government.

Today about 22% of America's 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands.

Many tribes have constructed programs to teach their languages. Language is a major factor in culture,and there is a push to pass it on. Ceremonies have been emphasized and pow-wows bring native people together.

Native Americans excel in many areas, but art holds a special place. Their jewelry, beadwork, totem poles, pottery, and other art forms are well known.

The youth are carrying on traditions in many places. A new generation is being taught to take pride in their culture as they travel into the future.

States such as Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky and Missouri take their names from Native American language. Contact with Native Americans introduced many words into the English language such as toboggan, chipmunk, pecan, chocolate, poncho and potato. Native American tribes have enriched us in many ways. Their prayerful approach to all areas of their lives is something the majority culture perhaps most needs today.

Silversmithing is the most popular form of jewelry making in the Southwest. Early in the 1800s, Spanish and later Mexican silver work was seen among the Southwestern Native Americans. In the 1850s Navajo artists learned how to work silver from Mexican smiths. Zunis admired silver jewelry made by Navajo smiths and traded some of their livestock in exchange for being taught how to work silver. Hopis learned the skill from the Zuni.

By 1875 Navajos melted Mexican and American silver coins and poured the silver into molds carved from sandstone. Sterling silver jewelry was soldered and decorated by beads, scrolls etc. Lapidary skills had been passed down from generation to generation. This led to setting stone on stone in mosaics. However the popular use of setting turquoise in silver did not become common until 1880 when turquoise became more readily available. Coral and other semi-precious stones gradually also began to be used.



With the advent of the railroad and trading posts Native American jewelry grew and developed. New techniques led to styles known today, knowledge and appreciation by the public has also grown with time. Native American jewelry is truly a varied and beautiful form of artistic expression.

Native American jewelry is prized by many. It has developed into different beautiful styles by various tribes.

What is Native American Jewelry Comprised of?

Though Native Americans crafted jewelry before contact with Europeons, most of the early jewelry was made from natural materials like bones, shells and wood. From there other materials became more popular such as turquoise, silver, and coral. From the Navajo, one of the most well-known Native American jewelry makers, came a blacksmith named Atsidi Sani. When he learned how to do work with silver from the Spanish, and not just iron, he began to make bracelets, conchas and other jewelry. This was around 1850.

Another Navajo, Atsidi Chon, was the first to craft jewelry using turquoise with the silver. The Navajo developed their craft using their typical silver leaves, flowers and beads. They also used hand stamp work and sandcast jewelry. Naja pendants and their well known squash blossom necklaces (from a Spanish pomegranate design) are staples in Navajo design.

How to tell which tribe created a specific Item

In the early 1900s, the Navajo Atsidi Chon taught the Zunis some of his methods with silver. The Zuni hand made jewelry for hundreds of years, especially dealing with the carved animal shaped stone fetishes. However, the introduction of silversmithing was the start of the style they are perhaps best known for today.

The Zuni stone designs include petit point, needle point and inlay. While the Navajo tend to favor chunky stones, the Zuni always cut and finely prepare stones.

Around the beginning of the 20th century the Zuni taught silversmithing to some in the Hopi tribe. For a while their silverwork was pretty much the same as that of the Navajo and Zuni. Then in the 1930s the Hopi started the unique overlay style where an oxidized blackened bottom piece of silver is soldered to a top piece of silver. The top piece has a traditional design carved into it. The result is durable and very pleasing to the eye. Most of the Hopi jewelry is strictly silver, although on some special pieces turquoise may be used.





The Santo Domingo tribe must also be mentioned among the most well-known styles of Native American jewelry. They are best known for their "heishi" beads. The tube or disc shaped beads are made of shell, turquoise or polished stone. The beads are ground,drilled and strung(still by hand in some cases). The tribe make their special thunderbird necklaces, and mosaic inlay on shell or bone as well.

Native American jewelry has grown to varied beautiful styles. Learning more about it is a rewarding experience. It can also lead to better appreciation of the artists and the cultures that give us this art.

Make Sure It’s Authentic

Native American jewelry identification can be broken down into 3 easy steps:

Step 1- Identify which tribe most likely produced an article of jewelry based on the styles, techniques, materials, history, provenance, hallmark.

Step 2- Identify the materials that were comprised to make the jewelry and if they are consistent with authentic Native American jewelry.

Step 3- Is the source a trustworthy source that the item is coming from? One must be cautious where they purchase their jewelry.

History plays a very significant role in Native American jewelry. Like any art, the most valuable tends to be the vintage pieces. Usually vintage Native American jewelry items were not signed or hallmarked, they were made with love and with high quality materials. Sterling silver and turquoise were utilized for these special creations. Since the main three tribes that create Native American jewelry are the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi, expect these three tribes to make up around 85% of the Native American jewelry market. From there, other tribes such as Laguna, Cheyenne, and Apache have a few artists contributing to the silversmithing community. With each tribe and artist having a unique style, Native American jewelry continues to skyrocket in value. It is difficult to create a piece of jewelry from raw materials such as turquoise, coral, and sterling silver. The turquoise stone many times has to be shaped in order to achieve the desired look. The silver is hand cut and then shaped into the desired cuff design. The silver works that are situated on the outer portion of the piece can be extremely detailed, proving that it takes time to create a unique Native american belt for example.


Native American jewelry is one of the best and smartest types of jewelry one could collect. The cultural, artistic, and value of this type of jewelry continues to spark the interest of millions of people. This one of a kind art has been the showcase of the southwest for over 100 years and continues to gain popularity to this day.  

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