The intricacies and designs found in Native American jewelry have been adorning our fashion sense for centuries. With many different tribes all bringing their own unique styles to this area of the jewelry scene, there truly is something for nearly every taste. While many tribes may be relatively close in geographical proximity all things considered, the history and culture they imbue every piece of art with can be completely unique from one culture, or tribe, to the next.
Few other styles of jewelry can compare to the intricate and detailed nature of traditional sterling silver Hopi jewelry. Historically, the Hopi have worked with a method considered “overlay” in which layers of sterling silver sheet metal are used together to create the depth in design that is so characteristic of this style. An artist will create the texture for the design on the lower layer of silver by hammering, then oxidizing this metal. This is what creates the darkened background that effortlessly highlights the designs in these pieces. Using a very fine jewelry saw, a Hopi artisan will cut their designs from another layer of sterling silver. These pieces are then formed together and soldered with a seamless edge, not an easy task to defeat for a jeweler, for a finished piece that is truly amazing, and depending on the designs, some of the more contemporary styles of Native American jewelry.
Often designs of waves to represent water, bear paws with claws to represent protection through travels, and the Man in the Maze representing a person’s journey through life, are commonly found in traditional Hopi jewelry designs.
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Offering up a variety of designs, often working with natural stones and materials such as turquoises, mother of pearl shell, and coral, Zuni jewelry is by far one of the most intricate and varied styles of Native American stone and silver jewelry. While many designs and styles can be attributed to this culture, two are prominently found throughout the Southwestern United States region, including bezel set turquoise and natural stones in sterling silver settings, and brilliantly inlaid stone art.
The bright blue turquoise and deep red coral are favored as design elements in many pieces of Zuni jewelry, in which the turquoise or coral is cut down to small oval, circle, or teardrop cabochons, then individually placed in saw-cut bezels to form mosaic-like designs. Often details will be added to the designs with textured silver, helping to balance the stone and metal designs, and offer a bit of stability among the delicate stone work.
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Also commonly seen in this culture’s jewelry are the delicate designs created by cutting and inlaying stones into a sterling silver setting. Working with a variety of natural materials including turquoise, spiny oyster shell, and onyx, many inlaid Zuni designs feature Kachinas, animals, and the Sun Face design bringing the history and traditions of this culture into every piece created.
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As each piece of stone in a piece of inlaid art is individually cut and placed into the artwork to fit not only the other stones in the design, but the overall shape of the metal foundation, these pieces are always unique. In the case of rings, this uniqueness will extend to the size of the ring or formed bracelets, as each piece of stone will also be cut to match the exact curvature of the ring or bracelet, making these nearly impossible to reform into a new size in which the natural curves of the jewelry would be altered.
Seed Bead Jewelry
Given the power of trade routes throughout the centuries, many Native American cultures have also influenced a strong bead trade, particularly when it comes to the designs of seed bead jewelry. While Hopi and Zuni sterling silver jewelry offer up delicate designs, very few styles of jewelry can truly offer the details, and brilliant color combinations that are brought to life with seed bead jewelry.
Small glass seed beads, appropriately named given their comparative size to many small seeds, can be found in every color of the rainbow, and a variety of sizes, giving this art nearly endless possibilities. Often seen stitched to leather, or woven together, these beads can be used to form complicated designs and images from brightly colored flowers, to geometric designs. While this art form is most commonly seen in smaller pieces of work such as jewelry, some cultures will adorn their traditional ceremony outfits, and moccasins as well.
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