Southwestern jewelry is coming into
fashion. Some is classic (or even vintage) Indian Jewelry. Some is labeled
Native American Jewelry and displays a more modern look.
Southwestern jewelry is always in style in
Santa Fe, Scottsdale, Sedona, and similar artisan-oriented communities.
in Arizona, I have absorbed the local history and lore of jewelry made in the
region. I have not executed a scholarly study of the subject, but... I'll tell
you what I have been told.
the Europeans (Spanish) explored the Southwest in the 1500s, they documented
that the local people were making bead jewelry. The beads were fashioned from
colorful rocks and shells. There was some trade activity associated with the
beads, since some of the shells came from the sea, hundreds of miles away.
missionaries seem to have introduced metal coins (silver reales and pesos) into the local jewelry making
activity. At first the coins were simply drilled and worn on leather, hair, or
Later the coins were beaten and smoothed, rolled, or otherwise shaped.
Even later, when trains came to the territories, the coins could be placed on a rail for the
next train to flatten. These methods were employed because metal
melting tools and knowledge were lacking. Goldsmithing technology existed in
Central Mexico, but not here.
Indian jewelry with antique coin images on the back are
Southwestern jewelry took another step forward when the tools
necessary to melt silver became available to the local tribes. Sand casting is
the technique that local artisans adopted to make silver designs and objects. It is still practiced today. A design is
etched into damp sand and molten silver is poured into the void.
The rough casting is then polished and finished. The sandcast naja shown
above is a design that reputedly comes from the Moors, through the Spanish
missionaries, and to the village-dwelling tribes of the Southwest.
As the craft evolved, the colorful rocks that were used to make
beads were incorporated into the jewelry pieces. At first as water worn
pebbles, and then as shaped and polished cabochons. Turquoise, malachite,
azurite, jet, obsidian, jasper, petrified wood and other agates were widely
used. Mother of pearl and coral were also used at times.
In the last hundred years or so, inlay and channel work has
been perfected by some regional craftspeople, as illustrated by the photo of the Zuni piece at the beginning of this
Southwestern jewelry still uses all of the materials listed
above. Some artisans had ventured into using gold rather than silver - for a few
years. With the
current high price of gold, most have returned to using silver exclusively.
As you can observe in several of the photos accompanying this
article, tarnish can attack silver objects if they are not protected. Many of
the stones used are porous, and may be discolored or attacked by chemical
Southwestern jewelry artisans are now moving into styles of jewelry that blends
Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, or other native cultural, motifs with a fine jewelry look.
Southwestern jewelry artisans have been reluctant to use faceted gemstones in
their jewelry for the most part. I've never understood why that is. Amethyst,
garnet, peridot, and other gem deposits exist on Navajo and Apache reservation
lands in Arizona.
produce quality pieces, an artisan would need access to faceted gems and a few
new tools and techniques.
setting techniques and hand tools
equipment and skills
market for the jewelry
Encouragement and sponsorships
for the craftspeople
Prong setting is generally used with transparent colored gems.
It allows more light to reach the gem and show the color
Electroplating is used to rhodium plate the silver, to protect
it from tarnishing.
If Southwestern jewelry is coming into fashion, it should
blend tradition with modern styles. Faceted colored gems can deliver the
I think it can be a
great look. What do you think?
Top - Zuni Indian example of inlay
Next - Old
coin used as adornment
- Navajo sandcast naja, often used as the pendant on squasblossom
- Navajo man's ring
- Navajo squasblossom necklace - museum piece
- Sandcasting with faceted citrine
- Turquoise necklace with silver and red topaz pendant
- Beautiful Amethyst 4.8 carat gem in flawless clarity and pear shape
A Google search using keywords such as native american jewelry
or indian jewelry can return some very interesting
information and websites.
Readers have requested that I offer a special deal on a
different gem in each newsletter. I am not able to offer gems at prices below my
cost as some readers have requested, but I will offer them at very low prices.
We keep gem prices low by buying quality gemstone rough
worldwide, and having the rough material cut by our gem cutters in Asia.
This month's featured item is a high quality gemstone, and the
As you read this, we will be at the Tucson Gem Shows. This makes
30 consecutive years that we have attended.
We were new to the gem business in 1981. We were searching out suppliers,
craftsmen, and customers. We were told of "the Tucson shows" held in
early February each year. Since that is only two hours down the freeway, we
made arrangements to go to the next show - in February 1982.
Actually we arranged to team up with another gem dealer who had never gone
to the shows either. We had not reserved hotel rooms, nor pre-registered for
admittance to any shows. We just knew there were a number of show locations
"at the hotels along Interstate 10," and that we had to prove that we
were members of the industry.
So we arrived in Tucson and cruised along the freeway access road, looking
at the various hotels, gas stations, and vacant lots with show booths set up.
We picked a hotel with a show that appeared to be more professional than some
others, and went in.
We presented a copy of our business license, tax ID number, business cards,
and driver's licenses to the ladies at the registration tables. We received a
credential, and went in to the exhibit hall. We were at the gem show!.
While talking with an exhibitor, we were told about a new show opening that
day at the Double Tree Hotel. After working the exhibits at that freeway hotel,
we drove across town to the Double Tree, and gained admittance to the show.
It was a smaller show, but the exhibitors and the goods were better quality.
We were informed that this was the first year for the show, and the group...
the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA).
We've returned to the Tucson Shows each year since. The shows have grown,
improved, changed venues, and generally evolved. We bought and sold at the
shows, made industry contacts, and friends.
Now that we buy rough, we don't buy much at the shows, but we still go to
see friends and talk about the what's going on in the industry.
Now is the time to take a week to recharge... before you begin thinking of
replenishing your depleted inventory - oh, and remember that the Tucson Gem Shows are only a month away.
Also, Valentine's Day is coming. The big stores are hurting because
people are cutting back. But gift occasions don't stop. Birthdays,
anniversaries, and many other reasons to buy nice jewelry at a great price just
keep on coming.
I hear that the dollar menu at Wendy's is doing well. This is an
opportunity to attract new customers to your "quality jewelry at a low
If this business wasn't so enjoyable, it could turn into work.