The Beauty of Heishi

Art and adornment have a long history in the southwest. To understand that, one only has to look at the tradition of “heishi” or shell necklaces. They have been an expression of culture in this area for thousands of years and some believe they are the oldest form of jewelry found in New Mexico. Heishi are some of the finest and most beautiful examples of Native American art.

The name “heishi” translates to the word “shell” in Keres, the language of the people of Santo Domingo Pueblo, whose artists are most associated with the style. Though the word originally meant strands of flat discs created from shell and strung together, today it has become associated with any strand of tiny beads from a variety of materials.

Heishi necklaces have been found in the Ancestral Pueblo sites of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Other evidence shows, however, that the earliest culture in the area to make shell necklaces was the Hohokam, who lived in parts of what is now Arizona ten thousand years ago. Its history may go even further back. The first recorded example of heishi art was 6000 BC. For the Ancestral Puebloans, the shell used in the necklaces was believed to have come as trade goods from the area around the Gulf of California.

Part of the beauty and value of traditional heishi beads comes from the skill and time needed to produce them. For the artist, it can take up to two weeks to produce a single strand of heishi beads by hand. The shell or stone used must first be cut into strips, then chipped into tiny squares. Once this is done, a hole is drilled in each bead before it is strung on the wire. The next part of the process involves grinding the beads against a stone wheel to round them. This can be not only time consuming, but can cost the artist some of the materials. Softer stones such as jet grind down faster than harder stones. The skill of the artist is extremely important to maintain the uniform shape required of a high quality strand of heishi. Even working with harder stones such as turquoise can take effort. It is estimated that up to seventy percent of natural turquoise can be lost in the process of making heishi beads. During the final step of the process, the beads are smoothed with sand paper, then polished with leather.

Due to the labor and time required, fewer artists are producing heishi beads by hand. This change has increased the value of those strands which are produced by hand. The ongoing popularity of beaded jewelry keeps Native American artists producing the elegant pieces. Traditional style is being combined with contemporary ideas that include a wider variety of stones and other materials, along with different shapes and color combinations. Today’s heishi strands are made by artists from both Santo Domingo Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo, creating an abundance of beauty for those who enjoy Native American art.