Native American jewelry is a cultural art form dating as far back as 8800 BC. In Nevada, olivella shell thought to date back to 6000 BC has been found. Bone and antler beads from 7000 BC were discovered in Alabama’s Russell Cave and copper jewelry was traded in 3000 BC at Lake Superior, which reaches into Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Louisiana has also has had ancient jewelry findings dating around 1500 BC.
Even with a wide variety of styles and designs, most Native jewelry fits into a specific category. To help you better navigate our collections we have compiled a list of some of the more common Native American jewelry styles. Many of the pieces you’ll find on our site do not fall into a single category; pieces may fit into multiple categories or stand alone in their originality. One other difference to keep in mind: every individual artist has their own unique style, which differs from other artists and from tribe to tribe. So pieces that fall into the same category will each have a unique design all their own.
Single stone pieces -whether it be earrings, rings, bracelets or necklaces- are some of the most common designs in Native American jewelry. The single stone jewelry style features one beautiful stone as a stand-alone centerpiece. There are many types of gemstones and natural materials that are commonly used as center-stones in the single stone style. Some of which are true “stones” while others are natural organic materials such as coral, shell, spiny oyster, mother of pearl and wood.
The most common and widely recognizable stones used in Native American jewelry include, but are not limited to, turquoise, malachite, lapis, variscite, onyx, jet, opal, charoite, calcite, mother of pearl, howlite, agate and tiger’s eye.
The multi stone design is another popular Native American jewelry design. The term “multi stone” is a broader term describing more than one stone that is incorporated into unique styles such as row, cluster or inlay. The basic multi stone designs used in Native American jewelry use three to five matching stones. They are typically laid out in a graduated pattern with the stones arranged from largest to smallest. The center stone is usually the largest and most profound and is flanked by the other, smaller stones.
Multi stone jewelry designs also describe hand cut pieces of stone that are carefully and skillfully pieced together to create patterns and shapes.
Jewelry designed in a row has a multi stone pattern. Rows are laid out in a straight line either horizontally, vertically or diagonally. The horizontal row is the most common orientation of stones in Native American jewelry, for example, adorning a bracelet band or horizontally hanging necklace piece. Another variation of the row style is called the multi row design, which describes multiple rows stacked parallel to each other. These can also be done is diagonal, vertical and horizontal patterns.
A cluster is a close arrangement of stones. Native American artists freely place similarly sized and shaped stones in a linear or non-linear fashion to form eye-catching pieces. In unorganized arrangements these stones don’t necessarily match one another exactly; in fact it’s just as common for a Native American jewelry cluster design to be an unorganized cluster with stones that do not match exactly as it is for them to be arranged.
There are two different types of cluster designs, the second being the arranged cluster. The arranged cluster is the classical or traditional cluster design and has been used for many generations by Navajo and Zuni jewelry artists.
The sunburst for flower design is the most popular of the arranged cluster jewelry pieces. At the center of the layout is a focal stone- typically larger than the rest. Surrounding the center stone are smaller, perfectly sized stones that are placed evenly in a flower or sunburst design.
Random cluster designs are when the grouping of stones is placed in a seemingly random fashion. Random clusters highlight stones that would arguably lose some of their brilliance if shaped down into a stone that would likely be found in an arranged cluster. There isn’t much of a pattern to the order of the stones found in this type of cluster design. However, the stones are still placed evenly, and elegantly adorn the jewelry.
Native American jewelry artists have to make careful measurements of the stones and their placement to make all them fit evenly in a desired area. Therefore, these designs may not be as “random” as the name suggests.
As the name suggests, rainbow designs are reminiscent of a rainbow’s color pattern. This type of row or cluster has a multi stone style using more than two colors of stones. For this jewelry pattern a minimum of three color variations are used. The stones may be the same type (such as turquoise), but the hues will be noticeably different. While some of these designs will incorporate variations of one stone, others will include all of the colors of the rainbow. Each jewelry artist puts their own unique spin on the rainbow design.
The inlay jewelry style gives designers complete freedom to create designs of their choice. This lapidary style incorporates flattened stones that are measured, cut, shaped, and carefully laid in place to create a design. The Zuni tribe is known for mastering this style of art. The different types of Native American inlay jewelry are categorized by how the stones are held in place- for example, through channel inlay or stone to stone inlay.
Channel inlay is exactly like the inlay designs described above, made of flattened stones that are measured, cut, shaped, and carefully laid in place to create a design. Yet, channel inlay is its own unique rendition of the art and is a significantly more rare and traditional style.
Native American jewelry artists use stripes of metal called channels to hold the stones in place. This type of inlay is easily recognizable by the segmented metal lines between the stones. The channels are often made first, and then stones are carefully measured and cut to fit between the channels, secured by a type of epoxy that also gives a clean finish to the look.
Stone to Stone Inlay
Only the most skilled Native American jewelry artists can conquer the intricate process of stone to stone inlay. This is a jewelry design that is considered to be modern, as it is a newer take on traditional Native American jewelry. Each skillfully shaped stone sits next to surrounding stones, only separated by sidewalls. These stones create patterns and designs that stay true to the native American’s cultural aesthetics. When designs are completed they are secured with a strong stone epoxy.
The overlay style is made of two or more metals that are overlaid, one on top of another. The depth of each layer creates dimension in the design. For instance, a gold belt buckle with gilded silver overlay adding a three-dimensional contrast of metals.
The Hopi tribe is best known for mastering geometric patterned overlay jewelry. They create their popular designs by creating a contrast between metals. For example, shapes are cut into a silver strip which is then layered on a solid strip. The bottom strip of metal is darkened through tempering, scratching or chemically oxidizing. Next to each other these dramatically different metals offer a unique twist on traditional jewelry.
The storyteller overlay jewelry is a a type of design that illustrates the timeline of a story within the design. This is commonly seen across the cuff or a bracelet or shorter stories can be found on jewelry pendants.
Polishing is done once a piece is completely finished. Native American jewelry artists use a simple and straight forward polishing process. Base metals used in a given style are smoothed and polished to be mirror like- reflective and shiny. This is commonly done with cuff style bracelets, rings, and earrings. When a piece falls into the “polished style” category there typically aren’t any other accent pieces on the jewelry such as stones or metal stamp work.
Hammer work is done by hand using special hammers and a metal base that metal sits against while it is being worked. The term “hammer work” is a generalized term used for the process of stamping, filing and repoussing. Stamp and file work designs are some of the most classic Native American jewelry styles. The designs are very simple, yet vary from artist to artist and tribe to tribe.
Repousse is considered a modern process, but follows the same concept.
Stamp work is done using metal stamps, each with a unique tip. Imagine a smaller version of a flat-head screwdriver that has a unique point. With each stamp, Native American jewelry artists create beautiful designs using this repeated technique in patterns. Stamp patterns can be as simple as a sunburst on a metal bracelet to intricate portraits and landscapes- all done with single or multiple stamping tools.
Repousse is also known as forge work. It is a technique done using a hammer to shape metal into jewelry pieces. Unlike stamp and file work (processes of stamping designs into metals), repousse work is created when the artist uses a hammer and post on one side of the piece and some kind of shaped template on the other side. The metal takes the shape of the desired template, leaving large indentions. It is these indentions that form various patterns.
File work is very similar to stamp work and also quite simple. Jewelry artists use files to hammer line markings into metals in patterns on a given piece of jewelry. File work is also used to file, shave or scratch the metal to create a distinct, worn look.
Casting is a process of heating and melting metal until it is able to be poured. It is then slowly poured into a mold where it then cools. Once cooled, the mold can be removed, leaving behind the newly formed desired shape. There are three basic types of casting used in Native American jewelry; tufa casting, sandcasting, and machine casting. Depending on the type of mold that is used, the cast piece can have an array of different textures. This is the process in which jewelry charms are made in addition to modern Native American jewelry pieces.
Sandcasting an art that uses worked blocks of sandstone as metal molds. Depending on the complexity of the piece, this process can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of months. The skill level of the artist is also a factor in how long the process takes.
Tufa casting is similar to sandcasting, but in this process a stone called tufa is used to do the cast work. Tufa is very fragile and has a tendency to crack so molds made from this stone are unable to be used multiple times. Instead, this process is used for those who want to make a truly unique, one of a kind piece. To prove that there is only on piece like it in existence the tufa block is commonly given with the finished artwork.
Machine casting is done with prefabricated molds that can be reused many times. Because these molds allow for mass-production, the process is frowned upon in the Native American jewelry industry. With the ease of this process, many companies saturate the market with these cheap reproductions. Instead on buying a unique, handmade, genuine Native American piece of jewelry, consumers are buying a factory-made knockoff.
Shank work in an intricate design process that is virtually limitless as to how many different designs can be made from the silver wire shanks. Wires that are at least ¼” in diameter can be called shanks. These shanks can take different sizes, from round ¼” wire to thick 1” triangular wire. Shank work artists can do many things with them, from weaving smaller shanks together to layering them in different ways. Often, shank work is used to make supportive cuffs for stones and other design elements for bracelets.
A bangle, also known as a single shank style, is an early style bracelet that is a large heavy wire or shank that is decorated with stamp or file work. Bangles are generally worn in stacks with jewelry lovers wearing multiple pieces on one arm at a time. They are simple and lightweight pieces that are not as bold and overpowering as other Native American bracelet styles, making them perfect for someone with a daintier wrist.
Jewelry that does not fit into one or more of the above categories falls into our contemporary or “new style” category. Once a style becomes more common and well-known it will form its own category, but this takes some time. Contemporary jewelry varies in design with untraditional influences leading in the design aesthetic and can sometimes look futuristic or impractical. Native American artists are always coming up with new interesting styles to add to the industry and this is why these newer styles continue to originate.