A Brief History Of Navajo Native American Jewelry

By Jewelry Quest on Etsy

Navajo Jewelry making is the artistic expression of an indigenous culture in The America’s with beginnings that have been found in the Oral and Traditional History of Native Americans for generations.

The simple beaded jewelry that many tribes created as adornment, an expression of wealth or position in a tribe, and traded for goods and services, have been found throughout ancient and traditional lands once occupied by Native Americans. Simple Shell or Bone Necklaces, strung on sinew, thousands of years old, testify to a culture that has created beauty for centuries. Adornment for ceremonial items, clothing, horses, and bodies has always been a natural and creative art for Native Americans. The creation of Beads, originally from simple Bone or Shell, rough and natural, advanced to the shaping of Stones into Heishi Beads. Hand ground Turquoise, Coral, and Shell were fashioned into tiny discs, known as Heishi, and made into Jewelry Necklaces, Bracelets, and other adornment.



Santo Domingo Heishi Necklace

The Native American Peoples of The Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico have a distinguished history of Heishi Bead Jewelry making. The Santo Domingos cling strongly to traditional beliefs, following the creation of Beads established by the Anasazi. Revered and Admired for their skill in Creating Traditional Beaded Jewelry, Authentic Santo Domingo pieces are highly coveted and sought after. Today, many artisans at Santo Domingo are renowned for their Heishi and Turquoise Jewelry, and they continue to sell these wares at tourist locations.

Silver Mining & The Influence Of Mexico

Greek (Asia Minor) Antique Coins

The Mining of Silver began over 5000 years ago. In the area of Anatolia, modern day Turkey, the first major source of Silver was mined. The resource provided Craftsmen throughout Asia Minor the Precious Metal they needed to create Old World Silver pieces. Because Silver has been known and valued as an ornamental and coinage metal since ancient times, it is believed that Silver mines in Asia Minor were probably worked before 2500 BC.

Fast forwarding through the History of Silver Mining, we come to the pivotal event of The Spanish Conquest of The New World. It led to the mining of Silver that eclipsed anything that had come before that time. Between 1500 and 1800, Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico accounted for more than 85 percent of World Silver Production and Trade.

It was, in fact, Mexico Silversmiths who excelled in the Art Of Silver Jewelry Making. Today, Mexico Silver Jewelry Makers have given us some of The Finest Silver Jewelry in the world. While Mexico Jewelry Making had been established before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Spanish discovered the rich mineral wealth of Mexico with vast lodes of Silver and within one year after the conquest, in 1521, Hernan Cortes was staking his Silver Mining claim in Taxco, then called Tlach.

Taxco was founded as a colonial city in 1529, with 3 Spanish Miners who in 1531 founded the first Spanish Mine on the North American Continent. By the end of the 16th century, Silver from Taxco had spread from Spain all across Europe, and Taxco became world renowned for its wealth of Silver and Silversmiths. Taxco Mexico Silver Jewelry is considered to be The Finest In The World.

 Jeronimo Fuentes Sterling Silver and Enamel Masterpiece in vibrant colors. A Dancing Warrior with a Rainbow Headdress created by Jeronimo Fuentes, Marked Eagle 1.

This Rainbow Warrior is a Beautiful example of Taxco Silver and Enamel artistry inspired by Margot de Taxco and executed by one of her finest silversmith’s. 

The ‘JF’ signature is often confused with artist Jose Frederico. Documented in The Little Book Of Mexican Silver Trade and Hallmarks by Bille Hougart, the Eagle 1 Mark was used by Jeronimo Fuentes who joined Margot de Taxco’s silver shop, and followed as one of her successors. Jose Frederico used the Eagle 3 Mark, and the Eagle 1 Mark was used by Fuentes on early Margot pieces. After her shop closed, Margot allowed a few of her former silversmith’s to use selected molds of her designs. 




Statement Sterling Silver Necklace, Taxco Mexico. Modern Industrial Silver and Nickel Mixed Metal Beauty! Large Modernist Circles, each at 3/4″ diameter, are linked together by Bronze colored Nickel connectors. Strong and Substantial, this Modernist Taxco Necklace is Fabulous at 125 Grams weight.


The First Generation Of Navajo Silversmiths


Possible Photo Of Atsidi Sani The First Navajo Silversmith

Believed to be the First Navajo Silversmith, Atsidi Sani learned his craft from the Mexican Silversmiths. In 1865, he was introduced to Silversmithing and The Art Of Najavo Silver Jewelry Making was born.

Little is known about Atsidi Sani. He was born near Wheatfields, Arizona, around 1830. To his people, he was known as Atsidi Sani, which translates to “Old Smith,” and to the Mexicans he was known as Herrero, which means “Iron Worker.” He was also a Medicine Man, Spiritual Leader, Ceremonial Singer, and a Navajo Chief. Some of his early Silver work consisted of Conchas, Bracelets, and a variety of other Jewelry pieces. Once Sani became skilled enough in working Silver, he passed on his knowledge of Silversmithing to his four sons, Big Black, Red Smith, Little Smith, and Burnt Whiskers.

Atsid Sani’s most important contribution was sharing his knowledge in his community. His first students were probably his four sons. He was, for a time, a paid teacher who taught many Navajos the Art of Silversmithing. One of his most successful students was his younger brother Slender Maker of Silver who used Silver and Stone to create several interesting Jewelry Artworks that advanced Navajo Silver Jewelry techniques.

Atsidi Sani lived a long life. Chee Dodge, a Navajo Tribal Leader, spoke of Sani, living near Washington Pass, which was not far from where he lived. According to Dodge, Sani died around 1918 and “must have been over 90 years old” at the time of his death.


Navajo Silversmith “Slim” Bae-ie-schluch-aichin Slender Maker Of Silver by Ben Wittick ca 1885

      Antique Navajo Silver Button Covers

The First Generation of Navajo Silversmiths, taught by Atsidi Sani, included his four sons and younger brother, Slender Maker Of Silver. In the Early Years, the Navajos created simple Silver bells and buttons. These were worn as ornamentation, or traded among local Tribes for goods and services.

Navajo Silversmith

The early pieces of Navajo Jewelry were crude, heavy, flat and plain. The Silversmith’s tools were primitive and few: awls, cold chisels, hammers and rough files. Silver was obtained by melting U.S. and Mexican coins into ingots, then pounding them into workable sheets.

Navajo First Phase Coin Silver Ingot Ring 1870

Atsidi Chon, another early Silversmith, and Slender Maker Of Silver are both considered to be the first to set Turquoise in Silver around 1878. Grey Moustache, who was a student and the great-nephew of Sani, tells the Story in John Adair’s Book‘The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths’


The Transcontinental Railroal

The arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1880 changed everything. With the Railroad came an influx of tourists, traders, The Fred Harvey Company, and better tools. Saws, shears, dividers, fine files and emery paper aided Silversmiths in creating more refined pieces. Decorative stamps were copied from Mexican leather workers and the previously plain, Silver bands were now stamped and punched.

The Railroad changed the influence and commerce of Navajo Jewelry. In the Early Years, Silver Jewelry was worn for personal adornment, traded with neighbors and pawn shop merchants, given as gifts for newborns, brides, and special occasions. The Railroad brought new opportunities for The Navajos, and those opportunities expanded under the influence of The Fred Harvey Company.

The Fred Harvey Era Of Navajo Jewelry

Fred Harvey

Fred Harvey (1835-1901) was a Trailblazer. As the owner of several restaurants and hotels alongside railroads, he became a leader in promoting tourism of the American Southwest in the late 19th Century.

In 1878, Fred Harvey signed a contract with the Santa Fe Railway (also known as the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe) to operate small restaurants at railroad depots along the railroad’s route.
The Fred Harvey Company became a marketplace for Southwestern Jewelry. Indian Arts and Crafts were sold to tourists and The Fred Harvey Era of Native American Jewelry began.
Fred Harvey died in 1901, but his legacy was preserved and carried on.

The Indian Building


Minni Harvey, Fred Harvey’s daughter, and Herman Schweizer (Above), a German immigrant, became one of the largest collectors of American Indian Art in the world. Herman’s claim to fame with The Harvey Company came just after he had been appointed in charge of the Coolidge New Mexico eating house on the Santa Fe Railroad. In his spare time, Herman had roamed the Navajo and Hopi reservations in search of trinkets or curios to sell at the Coolidge restaurant. Minni Harvey was aware of the popularity of Herman’s curios at the Coolidge restaurant and encouraged him to expand his curios to other Harvey establishments.

With Minni Harvey’s urging, the company took on the Indian Curio Trade and established The Fred Harvey Indian Department in 1901. The Fred Harvey Indian Department opened their building at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

1930 Postcard Interior of The Indian Building

Herman had spent over 16 years in the Southwest and had developed an extensive network of personal relationships and business dealings, hiring Navajo and Hopi craftsmen to create Indian jewelry for The Harvey Company.


Herman created The Harvey Style Indian bracelet. He found that the large turquoise nugget bracelet did not find favor with the Victorian traveler. He had the Indian craftsmen reduce the size of the traditional Silver pieces to appeal more to the traveling tourist. Above is an example of a smaller Harvey Bracelet Sold by @JEWELRYQUEST On ETSY

Herman Schweizer spent most of his time with The Harvey Company developing the Indian Building in Albuquerque and building networks of the curio trade for The Harvey Company. Perhaps, one could easily say, that almost every trader in the Southwest was on contract or employed by The Fred Harvey Company at any one time during the history of the company.

Herman did not stop at curios but began buying collections from the various traders to showcase in the Indian Building in Albuquerque. For over five years, Herman engaged in acquiring the finest of the Southwest Indian Art. The author, Frank Waters, indicated the “F. H. Indian Building at the Santa Fe Station in Albuquerque New Mexico was equal to any modern museum and all transcontinental passenger trains were stopped there.”

Today, Fred Harvey Era Jewelry is widely collected and sought after.

The 1970’s Native American Jewelry Boom

During the late 1960s when The Doors were at the height of their fame, Jim Morrison bought a Concho Belt from Wayne and Irma Bailey while traveling in California.  Joe H. Quintana (1915-1991), a Master Silversmith, was the Maker of this famous belt.  Quintana likely made the Belt in 1966 or 1967 when he worked for Irma Bailey’s Indian Art & Pawn on the Old Town Plaza in Albuquerque, NM.


                                Jim Morrison Of The Doors                             

Cher (Cherilyn Sarkisian) has used Native American Jewelry and accents throughout her career and has had a dramatic influence on fashion. Her album Half Breed was released in 1973. 

cher half breed album

As a result of such publicity, Native American Jewelry reached new heights of Popularity and Demand. One of the most popular items made in the 1970’s were Squash Blossom Necklaces. There was a huge demand for them. It is also one of the most common Vintage items offered to us today.  During the boom some beautiful items were made. However, to cash in on the demand, some shops and Silversmiths cranked out the items, sometimes with inferior workmanship and maybe the work wasn’t even done by Native American Artists. One thing that wasn’t skimped on was the Sterling Silver. Silver was only  $1.29 per ounce when Jim Morrison’s belt was made in 1966. Today Silver is much more expensive per ounce. In the late 1960’s there was ample US Mined Turquoise to fill needs, but as demand rose Persian Turquoise began to be imported from Iran.  In the 1970’s a one carat US Turquoise Stone would be considered expensive at $1.00. Today, some of the more sought after US Turquoise can cost up to $100.00 per carat. Because of the great demand, the 1970’s experienced the first BIG influx of imported copies and reproductions which gave some people the idea that Native American Jewelry was chintzy and poorly made. The boom crashed about the mid seventies when the fashion cycle started changing and Silver prices started rising.


History Of The Squash Blossom

For thousands of years, symbols have told stories and have served as a method to gain power over the forces and the phenomena which effect a society or a person. The inverted crescent pendant on Squash Blossom Necklaces, called the ‘Naja’ by the Navajo,  is found in various design forms throughout the world. As a crescent, this form goes back as far as the Paleolithic period. It is mentioned in the book of Judges as an ornament worn around the necks of camels.  In the Phoenician culture, Astarte was the goddess of fertility and she was represented by the inverted crescent as well. As pendants, the inverted crescent has also been found in ancient Roman, and Crete artifacts.   

During the Middle Ages, the Moors rode out of the East and conquered lands in a westerly direction that included eight centuries of occupation in Spain. They adopted the symbol as a bridle ornament, and thought the inverted crescent would protect both themselves and their horses from ‘the evil eye’.  When the Spaniards came to South and Central America, they brought that same idea with them for the protection of their horses and of their soldiers. Thus, the Moors taught the Spanish, who taught the Mexicans, who taught the Navajo their belief systems and metallurgy.   

Coming from another direction in North America, the inverted crescent symbol was on various types of trade goods brought from the East coast by other Europeans.  The crescent pendant was used from the early 1800’s by the Shawnee, Delaware, Cheyenne, Comanche and Navajo tribes. However, metal work of various European influences was found in the Southwest as early as the 1700’s. At this time, the Navajo were fierce warriors who more often raided but occasionally traded with their neighbors, The Plains Tribes.     

By the 1820’s, Southern Plains metalworkers had learned the processes of cutting, stamping and cold hammering. Much of this work was produced in German Silver.  German Silver was a different alloy compared with Mexican Silver, which was often used by the Navajo. Through contact with either the Spanish and/or various Plains Tribes, the Navajo adopted the symbol of the inverted crescent for their horses.  The Naja was put on the horse headstall, the front center band of the horse bridle, and later, the Naja moved into the realm of Necklaces.  

In a 1930’s interview, “At one time, every Navajo who could afford a Silver headstall had one on his horse,” according to Grey Moustache, (a Navajo Silversmith who worked the art from the late 1800’s into the 1900’s).  In early 1900 photographs of Hopi Dancers, the Naja can be seen as a central component of Beaded Necklaces. 

The ability to work in Silver, leather and other metals, allowed the Navajo to move their culture from a warrior society to a merchant society. Where prestige and wealth had come from raiding, it now came from herding, and various art forms.  Silver Working was a very important part of this change.  

According to the Navajo, the symbol of the Naja is decorative, and serves no purpose either as a spiritual symbol or as a specific symbol. Yet, the Naja is held in very high esteem by the Navajo and other Native Peoples. 

One symbol of the Squash Blossom can be found on ancient petroglyphs at the Saguaro National Monument in Arizona. It is believed that the flower symbol we commonly see in Necklaces was brought to the Navajo at the turn of the century, from the 1800’s to the 1900’s. The Blossom is represented with long petals beginning to open and a sphere attached at the base of the flower. The flower pendant is a representation of the Spanish-Mexican Pomegranate.

In the Americas, Spanish colonial gentlemen wore variations of these Pomegranate Flower Blossoms on their shirts, capes and trousers as Silver adornments. Some Squash Blossom Necklaces that date from the 1880’s and 1890’s were made with hand hammered Mexican Silver Coins, with the Naja in the same design as the Moor horse bridle pendants. 

Najas can be found on all types of Necklaces, however, not all Squash Blossom Necklaces have Najas. And there are Necklaces with both the Blossoms and the Najas, as well as other design elements such as religious symbols. As time has progressed, both the Squash Blossoms and the Naja have developed into various designs and styles.  Today, these Necklaces continue to develop past the traditional Silver and Turquoise elements and are moving into gold, diamond and other materials of interest and great beauty.

The Love of Native American Jewelry will ebb and flow with the tides of fashion trends. As with all styles, they come and they go, and come again. Knowing The History of Native American Jewelry Creations, from simple Beads to the delicate work of Stone Inlay, gives a depth of appreciation for The Beauty and Discovery of Indigenous Art.

Thankfully, in recent years, Native American Jewelry is experiencing a Re-Discovery. With the advent of Books that clarify for us the The Creating Silversmith, Signatures, and Tribe/Location Information, as well as Rarity and History, the Art and Appreciation of Native American Jewelry is rising. A wealth of knowledge can now be discovered in written and cyber venues. Museums, such as the National Museum Of The American Indian in New York, are displaying collections of Native American Jewelry Creations. In 2016,  the National Museum Of The American Indian curated a wonderful presentation of Navajo Yazzie Family Jewelry in an exhibition called ‘Glittering World’. 

For many of us, Native American Jewelry will always be A Glittering World.