Different Navajo jewelry types

Different Navajo jewelry types

by Binasaji

Wampum Beads , Heishi strings, Naja Sets, Squash Blossom Necklace, Bold Overlay,Inlay work Bracelets , Kitohs. What are they?

Jewellery plays an important part in all our lives – men and women. The ancient Indians too loved ornamentation and used all kinds of material to fashion jewellery for themselves. In modern times wearing handcrafted, authentic Navajo jewellery has become a trend. The Navajos created designs based on their unique history and culture – Historical figures, animals and other nature symbols like thunder, flowers etc. were the predominant motif in their jewellery.

So what does Native Indian jewellery comprise of? Mainly it is silver and turquoise jewellery, although contemporary Indian artists also work with various gemstones like coral, carnelians, onyx and of course turquoise. Different tribes have different signature designs and some are common to all the Native American tribes. The Native American jewellery has a range from rings, earrings, necklaces, beautiful belts, wrist bands or bracelets and some websites even offer watches with silver and turquoise inlay work.

Necklaces are of several types – the Squash Blossom necklace, the Naja set, the Heishi beads, the Wampum beads and Fetishes (which are used as Pendants) etc. The early Native Americans fashioned beads from shells, stones, bones and sometimes even quills and were strung together with string. These bead chains were worn at important religious and ceremonial occasions – shell beads as old as 4000 years have been found. These beads indicated the status of the person- a single girl, a married woman, a hunter, healer, and the leader of the tribe – all had distinctive jewellery to indicate their position in the tribe. Belts, clothing, head gear, weapons were also inlaid or overlaid with beads to give them a more ornamental looks and also for luck.

Two important beads are a part of the Native American culture – Heishi and Wampum.

Wampum Beads

Wampum beads were the earliest form of beads and had great importance in the Native American culture influencing several aspects of the Indian way of life – as jewellery, for religious functions, social, financial and sometimes even political purposes. The Wampum beads of various materials (initially shells and later gemstones and sometimes even coins) were made. These beads were a legacy, handed down from generation to generation as heirlooms. Weapons and clothes were inlaid with Wampum for protection and beauty – even King Philip had a Wampum bead outfit. Colors on the Wampum had different meanings; for example red painted Wampum were a sign of war. Marriages, curing ceremonies and every aspect of the Indian life involved the Wampum.

Since money was a concept alien to the Native Americans, they made lengths of Wampum, which were initially used for gifting and later for trading between tribes. Later, the Wampum acquired an importance in the economy of the white man also. Scarcity of metal resulted in shortage of coins and the Wampum were used in lieu of currency by the white settlers also. Two colors of beads were utilized for trading – the White beads (Wampum) and the blue, purple or violet ones called “suckanhoch.” The purple beads were twice as valuable as the white Wampum and these beads were widely accepted as currency for several years. Of course, the white men desperately tried to duplicate the handcrafted Wampum through machines but the machine-made crude counterfeits were easily discovered and did not carry the value of the genuine Wampum. Although it may not be a viable form of currency anymore, Wampum beads are highly sought after by collectors of Navajo jewellery.

Heishi strings

The Heishi strings are truly a work of art – skilled and patient craftsmanship. A good string of Heishi looks like a snake and feels like silk when you run it through your fingers. The craftsperson takes anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks to create this wonder. The earlier Heishi strings were made from shell – making a hole in the shell and then making it into beads and finally rubbing it till it became smooth and even. Indian artists now use corals, carnelians, lapis, turquoise etc. to create these lovely Heishi strands. The process of making the Heishi beads requires patience – cutting off squares from the uncut stones/gems, making small holes in each square and stringing them, grinding them so they take on the circular or oblong bead shape, polishing with sand paper and the final polish on a piece of leather. The stones being delicate often break or chip off during the process – depending on the material being used; sometimes almost 50% of the beads are wasted before getting the perfect strand of silken beads. Of course, this flaw is the best way to verify if the strand you are buying is genuine Indian art or not. Most Heishi strands will have at least one bead that is a little chipped or flawed, it is the flaw that lends to the Necklace’s perfection. Wearing a Heishi strand feels like wearing a strand of silk – smooth and even – a masterpiece of patience and craftsmanship.

Naja Sets

Borrowed from the Spaniards, the Naja is basically a crescent shape which captured the imagination of the Native Americans. It is possible the Native Indians first spotted the crescent shape on Spanish horses. The Naja design became very popular with the Native Americans and was associated with fertility. Earlier the Naja sets were made of any available metal or even beads or coins, but after the Navajo learnt the art of silversmithing, Naja sets in silver became the trend. Contemporary Navajo artists too create beautiful Naja necklaces in heavy silver with the traditional crescent shape at the center as a pendant. The crescent shape can have designs of Bears, snakes or other floral designs alternatively, some artists make the animal/symbol in a crescent shape to give it the Naja effect.

Squash Blossom Necklace

This is an adaptation of the Naja set by the very artistic Zuni tribe. The Navajos who were the first to learn the art of silversmithing created Najas in silver. It was the Zuni tribe (who learnt the art after 25 years) which added turquoise in the Naja set to give rise to the famous Squash Blossom necklaces. These necklaces are a must-have for any serious collector of Native American jewellery. The gifted Zuni added turquoise, shell and other intricate inlay work on the silver to enhance the silver naja. These designs too took on the images of sacred and lucky animals – turtles, buffalo, bear etc. This beautiful traditional Indian piece can be found with both inlay work and overlay work too. A large variety of Squash Blossom necklaces can be found, some with beads in a crescent shape, some may have inlay or overlay animal motifs in silver. It can a pleasure choosing the one (or several) which appeals to you.

Other jewellery

Bold Overlay and Inlay work Bracelets / bangles and Kitohs (wristbands worn while stringing bows), Belts, Earrings and Finger rings are also available – made by contemporary Native American artists. These beautiful works of art are in demand by avid jewellery collectors from all over the world.

Some pieces are delicate while some pieces reflect the raw energy of the Native Americans. Both are equally desirable and are suitable for most ensembles. The greatest advantage is Navajo jewellery is unisex – most pieces can be worn by men and women both.

Browse the net and surrender to the charm of handcrafted Navajo jewellery.