The History of Indian Jewelry
When thinking of all the many Native American crafts, the art of Indian jewelry is near the top. When people think of this craft in it's most authentic form, four Southwestern tribes come to mind: Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Santo Domingo. For these Native Americans this craft and artistry is a main part of their lifestyle. To understand how it became a part of their lives we need to go back to the beginning.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to make contact with Native American people of the Southwest. Over time, friendly relations gave way to animosity and a reduction of Spanish influence. Native Americans continued to enjoy one introduction made by the Spanish conquerors - the horse. They greatly admired the use of silver ornamentation on the bridles and bits of the Spaniards horses and hoped to reproduce them, but their knowledge of metal work was limited. When the Southwest became a part of Mexico, the Mexicans traded jewelry to the Navajo for sheep. To the Navajo, jewelry then became a symbol of wealth. The Navajo were the first Indian silversmiths to learn from Mexican silversmiths in the 1850's. Mexican silversmiths had been taught and influenced by the Spanish. At first U.S. and Mexican coins were melted to work with, until this was outlawed by both governments. In 1940, Sterling Silver was first used in sheet and wire form.
The Navajo and Hopi are primarily silversmiths while Zuni are skilled in lapidary, or stonecutting techniques. Santo Domingo jewelers use larger cylindrical beads made from all types of stones and shells.
It is believed that around 1872 the Navajo taught the Zuni to work on silver. As mentioned the Zuni are Lapidarist. The use of this art form can be compared to a frame around a painting. It is used as a prop to help display the beauty of the stones used.
The early pieces of Hopi jewelry looked very much like Navajo. It took a while for Hopi jewelry to be adapted but now a technique called silver overlay makes their work distinctive .
Native American silversmiths look at each piece of jewelry as a whole. Slight imperfections are so consistent that no matter how similar pieces appear, each is unique.
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