Navajo Nation

Navajo Indian silver and turquoise jewelry (Lantern Dancer all rights reserved)

 “To a Navajo, jewelry is his most important possession,” says Laura Gilpin, a renowned Southwestern photographer. Within her book, The Enduring Navaho, she says about the Navajo people pictured wearing their jewelry with silver and turquoise: “See here: children wear it, and this very old man – over 100 he was – wearing all his jewelry while herding sheep. Here is a blind man, wearing jewelry even though he couldn't see it himself.”

Some of the silver – and more recent silver and turquoise - jewelry the Navajo is best known for is the squash blossom necklace, silver sandcast jewelry and the concha.

History shows the Navajo's silversmithing skills, utilized in most of their jewelry-making, as probably their most heralded contribution to the Native American Indian craft. Skystone and Silver authors, Carl Rosnek and Joseph Stacey, set the date that the first Navajo learned iron-smithing – and later, silversmithing – between 1853 and 1870. According to a 1975 Native Arts and Crafts Enterprise catalogue, “Mexican silversmiths from the Rio Grande valley,” who exchanged their “copper, brass and silver jewelry” for Navajo horses, probably taught the Navajo their “metal art. “Silver beads crafted from Mexican silver coins were among their first jewelry creations. Silver coins from this country were also used, but according to historians, the silver in Meixan coins were of a higher grade of silver.

Sandcasting, the “distinctively Navajo and often strikingly beautiful method of shaping silver” came to fruition in about 1875, according to Rosnek and Stacey. Liquified silver is poured into a rock mold, let harden and then “filed, sawed, ground and polished” into its desired shape. The term “sandcasting” came from the apparent use of “sandstone” for these jewelry pieces. Sandstone is a “sedimentary rock whose deep red color is often seen on the Navajo reservation..” Other stones that were easier to carve into gradually replaced sandstone as the preferred stone for this craft.

Turquoise set in Navajo jewelry didn't appear until the late 1880s, early 1890, says Washington Matthews, 1880s Navajo historian. Early photos of Navajos portray these pieces “heavily decorated with silver jewery, both cast and wrought... concha belts...hollow-bead necklaces with pendant najas...Turquoise is either very scarce or totally lacking in most photos” as stated in Skystone and Silver. The use of both silver and turquoise in Navajo jewelry came later. And although the Navajos usually get credit for the first silver and tuquoise jewelry, the book's authors say that it was already being made by the Indians of Central Mexico.

The Aztecs were apparently known for their gold- and silversmithing abilities in the 1500s. They say of their children - “You are a precious stone, a turquoise. You have been formed, shaped, you have the color; you are the offshoot and the stem.”

According to David Neumann, who wrote a booklet on Navajos, Navaho Silversmithing, the earliest pieces of Navajo silverwork was adorned with garnet rather than turquoise settings with turquoise eventually becoming the “preferred stone.” In the prehistoric Southwest, when metal was lacking, stones were “affixed by pine pitch or animal glue to shell, bone or wood.”

The silver concha is another example of the Navajo's infamous silversmithing. The Concha, Spanish for “shell”, has been changed to concho in Anglo-speak, and is seen mainly strung together into a belt. The Navajo conchas are said to have come to the Navajo through the Southern Plains

Indians who wore them strung in their hair, according to Garland's internet site. They were made of copper, brass and silver. The Mexicans also wore them. The Plains Indians' version could be likened to their name with its simpler, thin and lightweight styling “with no edge-scalloping,” whereas the Mexican concha was “heavily decorated with complicated designs.” Apparently, the Navajos combined these earlier concha creations with those of the Spanish to come up with a concha style of their own.

One distinctively Navajo concha characteristic is an oval or diamond-shaped stone, often turquoise, set in the middle of the concha. Garland's says the first conchas had an opening in the middle that leather could be laced through to make a belt. Later, after the Navajo learned the art of soldering, the openings were eliminated and replaced with turquoise or other stones. Photos of the older metal conchas show them with “filled, cut, punched and stamped” decorations.

Wearing jewelry was not only important to the Navajo person but also for his horse. Gilpin says even the Navajo's horses can be seen in old photos adorned with the tribe's beloved silver and turquoise, especialy on their bridles. One bridle, picutred in Skystone and Silver, shows off its

turquoise-set silver construction with a naja, conchas and butterflies. The photo's cutline reads, “TheNavajo often decorated his horse before he decorated himself.”

Because Navajos believe the blueish stone ensures the favor of the gods and protects against contagious diseases; turquoise is prevalent in their healing ceremonies. According to Southwest archeologist Dr. Bertha Dutton, the true origin of their jewelry's “design motifs” is hard to pin down “because they occur again and again, all over the world.” “As with all such ideas,” she continues, “they originate with the evironment: the earth, sun, moon, stars, clouds, lightning.” She says many of the.  Navajo's religious leanings came through the “Pueblo peoples.” She points out that Navajo jewelry design parallels that of Moroccan pieces. The Islamic influence, she says, can be seen in the crescent-shape of the Navajo squash blossom necklace's naja pendant and also in the “Navajo bracelet shape” - “a broken circle,” like a rainbow. The incomplete circle design on these jewery pieces is on purpose, she concludes, because “when the circle is completed, life is done.”

Silver first, then turquoise – it's what Navajo jewelry is about; it's what the Navajo is about. Each represents the other in tradition and style. Each depends on the other “to come alive.” A Navajo song might best sum up the relationship of the Navajo to his silver and turquoise jewelry. “They followed it, and now beauty walks behind them as well. Like the rainbow it is above and below them. It is elusive, as all art is elusive, but to have seen it, to have touched it, is enough, even though it cannot be grasped. It began in beauty. It will end in beauty. But like the rainbow, it will never really end.”