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Native American Art

Short History of American Indian Jewelry


Jewelry styles were different in every American Indian tribe, but the differences were less marked than with other arts and crafts, because jewelry and the materials used for making it (beads, shells, copper and silver, ivory, amber, turquoise and other stones) were major trade items long before Europeans arrived in America.

After colonization, Native American jewelry-making traditions remained strong, incorporating, rather than being replaced by, new materials and techniques such as glass beads and more advanced metalworking techniques.

There are two very general categories of Native American jewelry: metalwork, and beadwork. Before the Europeans, native metalwork was fairly simple, consisting primarily of hammering and etching copper into pendants or earrings and fashioning copper and silver into beads. After Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo artists learned silversmithing from the Spanish in the 1800s, metal jewelry arts blossomed in the Southwest, and distinctive native jewelry such as the well known squash blossom necklace, Hopi silver overlay bracelets, and Navajo turquoise inlay rings developed from the fusion of the new techniques with traditional designs.

Native beadwork, on the other hand, was already extremely advanced in pre-Columbian times, including the fine grinding of turquoise, coral, and shell beads into smooth heishi necklaces, the delicate carving of individual wood and bone beads, the soaking and piecing of porcupine quills, and the intricate stitching of thousands of beads together.

Porcupine quillwork has nearly died out (though some young artists have renewed interestt) but all of these other forms of beadwork are still going strong, though imported Czech seed beads have been the favored medium among many Indian artists for centuries now.

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