Whether you live in or are simply visiting the Southwest you likely will be tempted by the iconic silver and turquoise jewelry. While there are many Southwest jewelers, most people associate New Mexico with Southwest Native American jewelry.
History of Native American Jewelry
Native Americans were mining turquoise from local deposits and shaping the bright stones into beads and pendants long before Spanish and Mexican explorers arrived. Navajo, Pueblo, and other area tribes began to combine European silversmithing styles with local techniques and materials that had been passed down for generations. Thus, a distinctive style was born.
Turquoise with its blue/green color often symbolizes both sky and water in the Native American culture. In the Navajo tribes, this stone marks significant life milestones, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death since turquoise is associated with healing and protection.
Beware of Fake Native American Jewelry
Native American jewelry being sold below market value should raise alarms. Many imported fakes have flooded the market.
To protect yourself and your investment, purchase Southwestern jewelry from a knowledgeable and reliable jewelry store. All the silver at Austin’s Fine Jewelry is previously owned estate jewelry — except a selection of new silver chains. With his three decades of experience in New Mexico, Keith Austin can educate you on what to look for in Native American jewelry.
How to Identify Native American Jewelry?
The most well-known Southwest Native American tribes making jewelry today are the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi. Quality Native American jewelry reflects the silversmithing mastery. The size and patterns of the stones in your piece also may help identify which tribe created a piece of jewelry.
If your piece is characterized by expertly shaped silver surrounding the attached stones, then there’s a good chance its origins are Navajo.
On the other hand, if your piece displays expertly cut stones inlaid into silver foundations, then it is likely to be Zuni. If the jewelry features intricately carved animals, it may be made of Zuni fetish carvings, which are thought to bring luck, power, and protection to those who carry them.
The Hopi are also master silversmiths, and their jewelry showcases sterling silver overlay, where one piece of silver is laid over another. The top piece is carved, cut out, and otherwise embellished. It is then soldered atop a silver piece to create a multidimensional look.
The oldest Native American jewelry may not have a hallmark. When the railroads brought tourism to New Mexico, the practice of hallmarking jewelry was encouraged by trading posts. Today, there are numerous hallmarks, which may help identify tribal origins.
Handmade or Handcrafted?
Keith Austin and his team can explain and show you the difference between handmade and handcrafted jewelry. Handmade means designing, doing the lapidary work, and building a piece completely by hand. Handcrafted means using elements purchased at a jewelry supply store and assembling the piece. This difference can reflect the age, craftsmanship, and value of a piece of jewelry.
What Materials Are Often Used in Southwestern Jewelry?
Both vintage and modern southwest Native American jewelry often contain turquoise and silver. The richest deposits of turquoise are found primarily in the Southwest. Many older pieces of jewelry were made with coin silver, though sterling silver is more common today.
Additional materials included in Southwestern jewelry include:
Deep red or orange coral has been used in Southwest jewelry designs since Europeans brought the material to the United States. Artisans revere coral for its rare beauty and often combine it with turquoise to make colorful designs.
Spiny Oyster Shell
This material, made from the shells of spiny oysters found off the coasts of California and Mexico, comes in many different colors, including red, brown, orange, yellow, and purple.
Acoma Jet is fossilized wood, that can be carved, inlaid, or set like a gemstone, and offers a stark contrast to bright coral and turquoise designs.
The Distinctive Style of Southwestern Jewelry
When you see silver stamping and chunky turquoise stones, Southwestern jewelry immediately comes to mind.
Cuffs are a staple in Southwestern jewelry. Thick cuffs often feature quality craftsmanship, carvings, etchings, and stamping. Other southwestern bracelets showcase one-of-a-kind stones set with saw-tooth bezels.
Southwestern-style pendants often include traditional Native American motifs — such as feathers, animals, and other icons. Sometimes the stones themselves are the intended focal point of the piece.
A single large stone makes for a bold design, while a series of delicate turquoise rounds add a playful twist to traditional materials.
Cleaning Your Southwestern Jewelry
While some people like a tarnished look on their Southwestern jewelry, others may want more shine and less tarnish. For those, the silver can be cleaned with a paste of baking soda and water to remove the tarnish, then rinsed and dried. For a little shine, use a soft cloth.
It is very important not to soak any kind of Native American jewelry with stones in a cleaning liquid or put it in an ultrasonic cleaner. Especially in Navajo jewelry, the stones are often set on a sawdust base to cushion the stone so it won’t break while being set. Due to this process, if you soak it in a liquid cleaner, oftentimes the sawdust will expand and push the stone out.
Styles come and go, but Southwestern jewelry is timeless. Discover your next piece at Austin’s Fine Jewelry.