Native American Jewelry Styles
Native American jewelry is an art form, and there are a wide variety of styles and designs. Most Native jewelry designs fit into a broader category. We have compiled a general list of some of the more common categorizations of styles in the Native American jewelry industry and their descriptions. Most pieces are not bound to a single style. Each piece of jewelry can fit into multiple categories, or be completely original. Another consideration is that every individual artist has their own unique style, which will differ from other tribes and artists. These specific artist styles are not included here.
The single stone style is one of the most common designs in Native American jewelry. The single stone style literally means one stone. The single stone is usually the centerpiece of the jewelry and other designs are in place to accent the stone’s unique qualities and beauty. There are many types of gemstones and natural materials that are commonly used as center-stones in the single stone style. Keep in mind that we refer to all these materials as “stones” though some of them are natural organic materials.
Common center-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, Tiger’s Eye.
The Row is a type of multi stone design. The row of stones must be in a straight line but can be oriented vertically, horizontally or diagonally. The horizontal row is the most common orientation of stones in Native American jewelry. Another variation of this style is called the multi row design, which describes multiple rows stacked parallel to each other.
The stone cluster design is another term that refers to the arrangement of the stones. The stones are placed in a non-linear fashion. There are two different types; arranged clusters and random clusters. The arranged cluster is the classical or traditional cluster design, it has been used for many generations by Navajo and Zuni jewelry artists.
Arranged clusters are oriented in a repeating circular pattern starting with a center stone then encasing the center stone with geometrically measured “rows” of stones matching in size and shape.
Random cluster designs are when the grouping of stones are dispersed in a seemingly random fashion, and there is not really a pattern to the order of the stones. However, the stones are usually placed evenly and equidistant. The artists have to make careful measurements of the stones and their placement to make all the stones fit evenly in a desired area. Therefore, these designs may not be as random as the name suggests.
The multi stone design is also very common. It is a classification meaning literally more than one type of stone. It is a broader term used in conjunction with other styles such as Row, Cluster, and Inlay styles. The basic multi stone designs used in Native American jewelry use two different stones, the most common is the combination of turquoise and coral. The stones are also complemented by other applique silver work designs.
The rainbow design is a type of row or cluster multi stone style using more than three colors of stones. The stones don’t necessarily have to be of different type, but the colors have to differ enough to give a minimum of a three color effect. Many Native artists will use all of the colors of the rainbow in these designs.
The inlay jewelry style is a lapidary style where flattened stones are measured, cut, shaped, and carefully laid in place to create a design. The Zuni tribe is often given credit for mastering this style of art. There are types of inlay according to how the stones are held in place; channel inlay and stone to stone inlay.
Channel is a more rare and traditional style. Channel inlay is where the artists use stripes of metal called channels to hold the stones in place. It is easily recognizable by the segmenting metal lines between the stones. The channels are often made first, and then stones are carefully measured and cut to fit between the channels. Most of the time, a type of epoxy is used to secure the stone for a more secure long term fit.
Stone to Stone Inlay
Stone to stone inlay is much more common in modern Native American jewelry. The style is recognized by the stones being in direct contact with one another. The stones are held in place by other stones, the sidewalls of the area of the design, and a strong stone epoxy. It takes a lot of talent to measure and hand cut the stones to fit perfectly together.
The overlay style is made when two or more metals are overlaid one on top of another, and then using the depth of the two layers to create dimension in a design. The Hopi tribe is well known for mastering geometric pattern overlay work. The most common overlay design is when the artist cuts out shapes in a silver strip and then layers it on top of a second silver strip. Darkening of the bottom strip by tempering, scratching, or chemically oxidizing the metal is common to help give contrast between the layers.
Although most styles can be polished and shiny, the polished style of native American jewelry is usually fairly simple and straight forward. The base metal used in the style is smooth and polished to be reflective and shiny, like a mirror. This is commonly found in cuff style bracelets, rings, and earrings. With the polished style, there is not any other accenting work on the metal such as stones or metal stampwork.
Hammer work or hammer worked style jewelry is jewelry that have been designed by using a technique with a hammer. Hammer work is a very general term and and jewelry is better knows for the categories that fall under this technique; Stamp work, File work and Repouse. Stamp and file work are some of the most classic Native American jewelry styles. The designs are very simple. Repousse is a little more modern but follows the same concept.
For stampwork the artist uses a metal stamp and hammers the design into the metal of the piece. The artists can then create beautiful designs using this repeated technique in patterns with single or multiple stamps.
Filework is very similar and also very simple. The artist will use a file to hammer in line markings into patterns along the metal base of the piece of jewelry. File work is also when using a file to shave or scratch the jewelry.
Repousse style is another design technique that uses a hammer to shape the jewelry also known as forge work. Unlike stamp work and file work that stamp designs into the metal, 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 will take the shape of the desired template causing the metal to have large indentions. These indentions of different shapes and sizes can be presented in various patterns that form the design.
Casting style is jewelry made from cast metal. Casting is the process of heating and melting metal, and then pouring the molten metal into a mold to form the desired shape. There are basic types of casting used in Native American Jewelry; Tufa Casting, Sandcasting, and Machine casting. The end result cast can have different textures according to the type of material that was used as a mold.
An artist sandcasting will use sandstone to carve out a design. This can take from a few hours to a few months to complete relative to the complexity of the design and skill of the artist. A sandstone cast can be used multiple times before the mold degrades.
Tufa casting is done my using volcanic stone called tufa to do the cast work. Tufa is generally more fragile than sandstone and can be used only once before it has a tendency to crack. This is used many times by artists who want to have a one of a kind bracelet, and prove that it is the only one by delivering the tufa block along with the item.
Machine casting is when a design is turned into a prefabricated mold and can be reused many times. This is usually looked down on in the Native American jewelry industry and it takes the uniqueness out of the jewelry. Many factories take advantage of the Native art industry be filling the market with cheap reproductions using this technique.
Shank work style is jewelry made out of silver wire shanks. Silver and other metals used in jewelry making are sold at supply shops in plates, bars and wires. The wires that reach at least ¼” in diameter can be called shanks. These shanks can take different sizes, from round ¼” wire to thick 1” thick 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.
An early style bracelet that is a large heavy wire or shank that is decorated with stamp or file work. The Shank or cuff can extent all the way around in a hoop which is a common interpretation of the bangle bracelet but it does not have to be a full hoop to be considered this style.
Chain is not generally a style but a way to string, hang or connect other parts of jewelry. However, artists can sometime get creative with their chain work. Most of the time chains are found on necklaces to string pendants or as a terminal finish to give a little style to bead work necklaces. Chains can be either prefabricated or handmade. Handmade chains can take a long time as the artist has to individually create every link and connect them by hand. Handmade chains generally greatly increase the value of a piece.
Beadwork or beaded jewelry uses strung beads of stone or shell. Beadwork is most commonly seen on necklaces however can be found on just about every type of jewelry.
There are many different types of beads and several things that they can be strung on. Beads can be made from gemstones, natural organic materials, metals, glass, or plastic in different shapes and sizes. Most commonly beads are natural stone nuggets and finely cut shell disk beads called heishi.
In Native American jewelry, beads are strung on woven thread string, metal cable, or plastic. Historically bead jewelry can be found on classical organic fibers from plants such as yucca, which are very rare but can still be found.
If the jewelry does not fit into one of these categories then we commonly call it contemporary or “new style”. When contemporary styles become more common then they usually acquire their own nomenclature and become part of its own category. Contemporary jewelry can vary extremely and can sometimes look futuristic or impractical. Native artists are always coming up with new interesting styles to add to the industry