History of Native Indian Jewelry
Jewelry styles were different in every American Indian tribe, but the differences were less marked than with other arts and crafts, because jewelry and the materials used for making it (beads, shells, copper and silver, ivory, amber, turquoise and other stones) were major trade items long before Europeans arrived in America.
After colonization, Native American jewelry-making traditions remained strong, incorporating, rather than being replaced by, new materials and techniques such as glass beads and more advanced metalworking techniques.
There are two very general categories of Native American jewelry: metalwork, and beadwork. Before the Europeans, native metalwork was fairly simple, consisting primarily of hammering and etching copper into pendants or earrings and fashioning copper and silver into beads. After Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo artists learned silversmithing from the Spanish in the 1800s, metal jewelry arts blossomed in the Southwest, and distinctive native jewelry such as the well known squash blossom necklace, Hopi silver overlay bracelets, and Navajo turquoise inlay rings developed from the fusion of the new techniques with traditional designs.
Native beadwork, on the other hand, was already extremely advanced in pre-Columbian times, including the fine grinding of turquoise, coral, and shell beads into smooth heishi necklaces, the delicate carving of individual wood and bone beads, the soaking and piecing of porcupine quills, and the intricate stitching of thousands of beads together.
Porcupine quillwork has nearly died out (though some young artists have renewed interestt) but all of these other forms of beadwork are still going strong, though imported Czech seed beads have been the favored medium among many Indian artists for centuries now.
Native tribes in the Southwest have been creating ornamental jewelry for many hundreds of years. Before the Spanish ever arrived, these tribal artists had mastered the art of heishi bead rolling and lapidary. However, it was not until the 1800s that they learned to work metal from Mexican smiths. The Navajos were the first tribe to cast silver jewelry in the late 1870s and the technique spread to the Zuni and Hopi tribes by 1890.
Tufa stone is a compressed volcanic ash material that is found on the Navajo reservation. It is easier to carve than sandstone and its porous surface leaves a unique texture once the metal has cooled. Tufa casting is a labor-intensive process involving many steps.
First, a tufa stone of the desired size is cut in half. The two halves are rubbed together to create a perfectly flush surface. A cone shaped hole, called a sprue hole, is carved at the top to allow the silver to be poured in. Additional holes carved along the sides allow air to escape. Next, the artist's design is carved into the flat surface on the inside of the mold. The negative space carved away will be filled with molten silver or gold. The tufa stone is then carbonized with a torch and the two halves are bound together with clamps. The desired metal, silver or gold, is melted and poured into the tufa mold. Modern artists use gas torches or furnaces to melt their metal, but these tools were not always available. Early Navajo silversmiths would fill a pottery container with coins and settle it into the embers of a fire until the metal was in a liquid state.
Once cooled, the hardened piece is taken out of the mold and the extra metal in the sprue hole is removed. The artist will carefully sand and clean the design, making sure to leave the porous texture from the tufa stone. The last step is to shape the flat metal into its final form, such as the curved semi-circle of a cuff bracelet.