The Navajo Nation, also known as the Diné Nation, is the largest Native American tribe in the Southwest. They originated as a semi-nomadic population of hunters and gatherers who traded with Pueblo tribes and Spanish explorers.
Jewelry, beads and other adornments are an integral part of the cultural heritage of the Navajo. Elaborate ornamentation has long been considered a sign of wealth within their community: the bigger and more elaborate a piece of jewelry was, the more respect the wearer commanded.
Common features of Navajo jewelry include silver, large stones and organic shapes. While the Zuni are renowned for animal-shaped fetishes, the Navajo focus on the innate beauty of Southwest rocks and minerals. Stones can be rough, polished or carved into geometric shapes.
In pre-Colonial times, the Navajo gained much of their precious metal jewelry through conquest. After settling in the Southwestern Unites States, they bartered handcrafted turquoise and shell beads for silver necklaces made by Mexican and Spanish craftsmen.
The style of Navajo jewelry changed in the late 19th century, when Atsidi Sani (Old Smith) learned the art of silversmithing from a man nicknamed the "Thin Mexican." Atsidi Sani passed his knowledge of the craft down to his children and taught other villagers. Refined silver was difficult to obtain, so the resourceful Navajo silversmiths melted down tableware and coins to use as raw material for their jewelry. Many modern Navajo rings, bracelets and necklaces retain a rustic, handcrafted look consistent with these early pieces.
By the turn of the century, the Navajo had developed a reputation for their metalsmithing and lapidary skills. Early Navajo jewelry makers developed a unique style that merged Mexican iconography and techniques with indigenous folklore.
Concho belt buckles, buttons, and squash blossom necklaces that feature a series of stonework flowers surrounding a crescent-shaped pendant are among the silver jewelry pieces associated with the tribe. According to museum curator Dr. Jennifer McLerran, the blooms of the squash blossom necklace were originally modeled after pomegranate flower decorations on clothing worn by nineteenth century Spaniards. The horseshoe-shaped centerpiece of the necklace resembles the naja, a Spanish good luck talisman.
Navajo artisans make use of stone casting and forge soldering techniques that join two silver forms together to form a single piece. Artisans are so skilled that it is often difficult to detect seams in the silver. Stones used vary from bambu coral and opal to turquoise, a material considered sacred by Navajo tribes because of a legend in which it rained from the heavens.
The Navajo were the first indigenous people of the Southwest to work in silver. Thus, you're likely to find a wide range of options when purchasing Navajo jewelry. Whether you opt for a ring with sterling silver and bezel-set turquoise clusters modeled after the late nineteenth century style or a non-traditional modern interpretation with fine silver and exotic stones, know that each handcrafted piece is rich with history.
Note: Handcrafted Native American jewelry is an art form intended for daily use—silver actually will tarnish less when you wear it. But there are several special precautions you need to keep in mind to make sure you don't harm your jewelry.
First, never expose your silver jewelry to detergents, which can be harsh on many stones used in Native jewelry. Although it's tempting to use commercial jewelry cleaners on your silver pieces, these cleaners can be very harmful to jewelry with stones or pieces that have been silver oxidized (they are blackened in areas to create the design).
Instead, use a professional jewelry cloth or glove to keep your pieces clean. When storing jewelry, wrap it in flannel and place it in a box to keep it from tarnishing and getting scratched. For heishi and turquoise-bead necklaces, place them full-length, not bent, to prevent breakage of individual stones.