Navajo History 101 – The Art of Traditional Jewelry Making

Jewelry has been one of the most sacred parts of Navajo culture and continues to hold much significance in the modern times as well. It is believed that they learnt the art of jewelry making and silversmithing from the Spanish. Even in the present, they use many of the traditional tools and techniques to create exquisite and distinctive pieces. The Navajos believe in teaching such methods and techniques to their children so that the craft get passed down through generations. Today, there are many talented artists who continue to honor the art of traditional Navajo jewelry making.

History

The history of Navajo jewelry has been influenced by many events over the centuries. In the ancient times, the most common form of adornment was stone or wooden beads and sometimes even plant fibers that were woven in different designs. The Navajo people, or the Diné, first started working with silver in the 19th century. It is said that the first Navajo silversmith was a man named Atsidi Sani, who mastered the craft under the tutelage of a Spanish smith in 1853. However, if we were to look at some of the earliest creations, they were mostly made of cheap metals like copper. In the mid-19th century, the US government forced the Navajos into being imprisoned in Bosque Redondo. It is here that they began to experiment more with silver, especially sheet silver.

By the time the Navajos settled in their reservations after the Treaty of 1868, silver jewelry had started to become popular. There emerged many talented jewelry makers who further developed new techniques of making silver jewelry, thus creating their own unique style. Turquoise or “Doo tl’ izh ii” was first used in 1880 and in the subsequent decades, it etched its place as a quintessential Navajo jewelry element. This stone, which is often referred to as the “stone of life” holds a lot of significance for the Navajos. It is perceived as a harbinger of good fortune and is also used as a central part of many rituals and ceremonies.

During the early 1900s, with the increase in tourism in the South West, Navajo jewelry entered a new phase – it became a tourist-favorite. Semi-precious stones like coral also started to be used during this time. With this, the jewelry began to evolve and styles began to change to accommodate market demands, and Navajo jewelry transformed into what is now. Much of the jewelry that we see today feature intricate designs made using turquoise and other semi-precious stones as well as native Navajo art designs.

An anthropologist named Uriah Hollister wrote about the Navajos in 1903; he said, “Belts and necklaces of silver are their pride…” We believe that the best way to appreciate a Native American art like jewelry making is to learn about its history. And if you wish to buy authentic products like Native American beaded cuff bracelets, this is where you should look.