Native American jewelers use a variety of gems in their art. A gem is a precious stone or organic material that is used to bring color, style, and personality to a piece of jewelry. There are hundreds of gems and gemstones found around the world. We would like to provide you with information about some of the more common gems using in authentic handmade Native American jewelry.
What is Coral?
Coral is considered an organic gemstone stone because it originates from the hardened tissue of a Coral Polyp. Corals are marine animals, which are found in tropical oceans, they are important in the support and creation of ocean reefs. Corals produce a hard skeleton made from calcium carbonate secretions. This hardened skeleton is what is collected and used to form the gemstone.
Coral is found in many different colors. It has become difficult collect many of the varieties due to the diminishing populations of coral. Coral reefs have become an endangered ecosystem and are strictly regulated. Some types of coral have been brought inland for farming and commercial use. One of the most modern and now commonly seen today is Chinese white coral, which is stained red for a more natural look. This processed coral is shipped all over the world for jewel crafting and other arts.
Coral jewelry has been produced by cultures from around the world. It comes in many different beautiful colors from black to white and from blue to red. Coral jewelry has a history of being strongly connected with religious and spiritual meaning in the Italian, Chinese and Celtic cultures. It is also one treasure in the Buddhist scriptures. The southwestern Native American tribes quickly acknowledged the value of this jewel.
Coral gems are softer than most other gemstones and can be easily shaped into beads, center stones, and other small shapes. It is seen in different types of jewelry that requires intricate sculpting such as inlay jewelry. Small samples of the gem can run up to $1000 per 1 mm diameter for some of the rare forms, to about $5 at the low-end. The market for coral is doing very well, but the supply is slowly depleting which makes the prices for this precious gem continue to rise.
Buy Native American Coral Jewelry
Native Americans prefer to use red corals in their jewelry, which pairs well with blue turquoise. Because natural red coral is becoming so scarce, some of the dyed processed gems is used to give that deep red look. One of the most valuable red versions is Oxblood Coral, which is farmed in the Mediterranean. The pairing of its natural deep red color, in contrast with a well selected turquoise stone, can bring out the blues and greens and makes it one of the most desired Native American jewelry styles.
Jet is a type of coal known as, “lignite,” derived from decaying wood, under extreme pressure. Lignite name comes from “lignum,” the Latin word for “wood,” and lignin’s one of the most common organic compounds found in wood. Jet’s composed of the same elements of living matter … carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen … as the living organism from which it procreated. Gemologists considered it a mineraloid, rather than a true mineral, because it originates organically.
Jet’s black or brown, and may contain pyrite inclusions, apparent as brass colored flakes or a metallic luster. The phrase, “jet black,” comes from its dark color, which, curiously, is not black, but, rather, a brown so dark and dense that it appears to the unaided eye as black!
Jet forms when sunken wood, settles into underwater sediment, where little or no oxygen reaches it, and gets compacted as sediments pile on top of it. This sediment hardens to form “jet rock.”
The quality of jet varies among localities, and, according to the Gemstone Guide G8
“…near the coast in the vicinity of Whitby, Yorkshire, England, … the finest jet has always been found and worked. It occurs in lumps of variable size, often retaining the shape of the branches and twigs of the trees from which it evolved … Spanish jet (found in Aragon, Galicia and Austria) is harder and more brittle than the English product. That from Wurtemberg, Germany, is considered inferior. Material from El Paso County, Colorado, takes a fine polish, and Utah jet (Wayne Country [sic]) is generally an inferior quality with many cracks. Deposits also occur at Pictou, Nova Scotia, Canada but the hardness of the material produced is inferior.” G7
Material from Whitby, in England, dates back to the early Jurassic (Toarcian) age, making it about 182 million years old, and the tree from which this fossilized wood formed closely resembles the Monkey Puzzle Tree G9. Acoma Jet comes specifically from the Acoma Pueblo region.
Because jet forms underwater, the water quality also affects its final condition. Jet formed in salt-water sediments finishes hard, while that from freshwater environments is much softer. The earliest documented use of jet, in art, comes from a 12,000 year old Neolithic period damsel fly larva figure, found in Baden-Württemberg, Germany G6. Likewise, Paleolithic sites in Switzerland and France document ancient use of the mineraloid.
Artists prefer the harder material that originated in salt-water. The purest, jet-black rock, without pyrite or sulphur inclusions nor cracks or other defects makes the best carving material, and both artists and clients prefer compact, dense, hard jet figures and pieces with a bright finish.
Jet has no clearly defined form, making it amorphous, unlike directionally crystalized minerals, and it’s uniform in all orientations: a quality that gemologists call, “isotropic.” It has a greasy dull luster on rough surfaces and a vitreous luster on polished surfaces, which, along with being easy to carve or work on a lathe, makes it an excellent material for making fetishes and other figures. A very interesting characteristic of jet is that, unlike other black materials that one might mistake for jet, like dyed chalcedony, black tourmaline (schorl), garnet (melanite), obsidian, and glass, jet is not cold to the touch.
What is Lapis?
Lapis is an opaque gemstone and mineral. The major component of lapis, is lazurite ([Na,Ca]8[AlSiO4]6[SO4,S,Cl]2), a type of “framework silicate,” or tectosilicate. This group of silicates comprises nearly 75% of the crust of the Earth. It contains, aside from silica, sodium, calcium, aluminum, oxygen, sulfur, and chloride. The lazurite, of lapis, forms when molten lava seeps into crevices in limestone (contact metamorphism), where the intense heat and pressure fuels chemical changes in the mineral, nepheline, which is very much like feldspar.G18
Lazurite, with its sulfur anions, gives lapis a deep blue to greenish blue color. Some other blue minerals exist, like the carbonate, azurite and the phosphate, lazulite, but a good gemologist can readily distinguish between them.G19
History of Lapis
One of lapis’ principal components, lazurite, is so beautiful that a chemist ventured to describe its color, commenting that the,
“… intense blue background of this gemstone together with its golden specs of pyrite (called ‘Fool’s Gold’ because of its resemblance to actual gold) give it a radiant appearance that some compare to the beauty of a starry night sky.” (American Chemistry Council, 2007)G20
That’s quite a charming description, coming from a page on “Chlorine Chemistry!”
Humans have treasured lapis lazuli, called, “lapis,” for short, far back into time. It has been mined since the Neolithic Age, in Afghanistan, and it was the blue on the eyebrows of King Tutankhamun’s funeral mask (1341-1323 BC). Archeologists documented a dagger with a lapis handle, a lapis-inlayed bowl, amulets, beads, and inlays in the Royal Tombs of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, dating back to the 3rd Millennium BC. A softer, green-veined, mineral, Lapis armenus, also called, “Armenian stone,” or, “lapis stellatus,” resembles lapis lazuli so much, that artists may treat it as the same mineral.G21
Much of today’s lapis comes from northeastern Afghanistan, but it’s also produced in Russia, Chile, Italy, Mongolia, the United States, Canada, Angola, Argentina, Burma, Pakistan, Canada, Italy, and India. In North America, California and Colorado mine lapis.
Lapis has an interesting etymology or history of its development as a word. The Arabs and Persians mined lapis long ago, and were the world’s first major suppliers of the mineral. They referred to it as “لازورد,” (“lāzaward”) and, “لاژورد,” (lāžaward), respectively. The latter name also referred to the place where the Persians mined their lapis.G22
Medieval Latin adapted the word, as, “lazuli,” which, later gave rise to the Latin word, “lapis,” meaning “stone.” The name of the stone came to be associated with its color. The Medieval Latin word, “lazuli” also gave rise to words referring to the color, blue, in English (azure), French (azur), Italian (azzurro), Polish (lazur), Romanian (azur and azuriu), Portuguese (azul), Spanish (azul), and Hungarian (azúr). It’s obvious that the blue gem from the Middle East had an enormous impact on languages for centuries after the Persians began mining it.
What is Magnesite?
Magnesite, also known as “Wild Horse Turquoise,” not having copper nor iron that give turquoise their natural blue and green colors, respectively, is not a true turquoise. Magnesite, rather, is a type of calcite. Specifically, it’s magnesium carbonate (MgCO3) and commonly includes variable quantities of iron and calcium carbonates (FeCO3 and MgCO3, respectively). These latter carbonates have crystalline form similar to magnesium carbonate, and, in combination with the magnesium carbonate, form uniform, solid mineral solutions, regardless of the proportions of the metallic components.
Africa, China, Korea, Brazil, Europe, and the United States mine Magnesite, and the Globe Copper Mine, in Arizona, produces magnesite that’s very popular in jewelry because it’s encrusted in an aesthetically appealing matrix of hematite. Rich in magnesium, magnesite is valued for the production of Epsom salts and fireworks.
Magnesite forms when magnesium-rich rocks, like serpentine and dolomite, come into contact with water rich in carbon dioxide (CO2). Precipitation or metasomatism (change from one mineral form to another), of the minerals from the slightly acidic water, forms trigonal crystals that cleave off into rhombohedrons, or boxy-looking gems … very similar to other calcite gems.G1
Natural magnesite most frequently forms opaque, white, microcrystalline, porous stones with a dull luster, often described as looking like un-glazed porcelain. It looks similar to howlite, dolomite, and marble and may be confused with these minerals. Magnesite masses may occur within light or dark host rock matrix, giving it a webbed, mottled, or streaked appearance.
Aside from the typical white magnesite, sources report colors like gray, yellow, brown, tan, orange, and light pink, and some material may fluoresce in ultraviolet light. In fact, magnesite miners, in Nevada caves, use ultraviolet lamps to find the gems.
What is Malachite?
Malachite, along with azurite, goethite, and calcite, forms via the weathering of copper. This mineral, a copper carbonate hydroxide (Cu2CO3[OH]2) crystallizes in the form reminiscent of prisms, and, in nature, it occurs as an opaque, green banded mineral in the form of massed spheres (botryoidal), fibers (fibrous), or cones (stalagmitic), or, rarely, needle-shaped prisms.
Malachite accumulates in the fractures and cavities of host rock, deep beneath the ground, where hot, mineral-rich underground water transports copper in solution. The precipitate, copper carbonate hydroxide, deposits in the fractures and cavities, forming the masses known as malachite. This mineral, common around weathering copper ores together with limestones (the source of carbonate required to form the precipitate), often occurs together with azurite (Cu3[CO3]2[OH]2), goethite (FeO[OH]), and calcite (CaCO3).
Malachite’s found throughout the world, where geologic conditions, combined with geothermal activity, provide the environment and reactants necessary for its formation. Historically, Urals, Russia, provided much of the world’s malachite, but now it’s mined in Africa, Mexico, Europe, Australia, Asia, and both North and South America. Much of the malachite used by American Indians comes from mines in Arizona, like the Copper Queen Mine of Bisbee.
The name, malachite, means, “mallow-green stone,” from the Greek, “μολόχη molōchē,” name referring to “mallow” (Althaea officinalis), from Africa, which looks very much like the American mallows. Malachite often occurs together with azurite, and Arizonan Natives refer to this mix as “Azurmalachite.” Usually banded, some malachite has concentric rings of varying shades of green.
What is Opal?
Opal is a semitransparent mineraloid. Unlike the crystalline forms of silica, it is composed of hydrated silica (SiO2-nH2O), and its water content varies from three to 21%, by weight. In nature, it’s found as irregular veins, in masses, or in nodules in fissures or cavities in nearly any type of rock substrate, including limonite, sandstone, rhyolite, marl, and basalt. Most commercial opal comes from Australia, and some comes from Ethiopia, in Africa.
Opal diffracts light, causing its highly varied coloration that includes white, gray, yellow, red, magenta, orange, rose, green, pink, brown, slate, black, olive, and blue. In addition, it may be colorless or opaque to semitransparent. Gemologists refer to common opal as “potch,” and it does not exhibit the colors seen in precious opal. Opal’s opalescence, or colors resulting from highly dispersed light, results from its lattice structure of tiny silicon dioxide spheres that are closely packed in planes.
Although lapidaries do not valuate potch like opal gemstone, potch, too forms beautiful masses, and some forms of non-gemstone quality potch are especially attractive. For example, Mexican fire opal (yellow, orange, and red), opalized wood, resin opal (honey-yellow), menilite (brown or gray), hyalite (colorless, transparent), milky raw opal (white with blues or greens), geyserite, diatomite, and some opal-matrix combinations make especially attractive cut stones.G15
Of these, fire opal, a transparent to translucent opal, with its warm colors and occasional green flecks, has become especially well known, as has the Mexican jelly opal. Gem cutters often use both in their host material, producing a cut stone known as “cantera opal.” Cantera’s a Spanish word referring to, “quarry stone.”
Aside from natural opal, manufacturers synthesize artificial opal, which gemologists can discern from natural material by its regularity and lack of fluorescence under ultraviolet light.
Through history, opal has been traded under many animated names, including Pandora, Light of the World, and Empress. During the Middle Ages, opal, with its rainbow of colors in a single stone, was considered a gem capable of carrying the qualities of the whole spectrum of gems whose colors were represented in the stone.G16 It has even been credited with the ability to confer invisibility!
With so many colors, that all look different from any particular angle, and its unusual translucence still inspires mystery and magic. It is definitely one of the most variable precious stones, in terms of its colors and degree of translucence. Its variability comes from its physical properties and structure, and schillers, or reflected color flashes within the opal, make it unpredictably colorful and brilliant.G17
What is Spiny Oyster?
The material called, “Spiny Oyster,” used by Native American artists to make inlays in fine jewelry, comes from the shell of the bivalve mollusk, Spondylus varius. The genus’ scientific name, “Spondylus,” means “spines on its back.” Aside from its scientific name, it’s also known as Thorny Oyster, Spiny Oyster, Spondylus, and Spondylid.S4 The bivalve mollusks include the clams, oysters, cockles, mussels, and scallops and include both saltwater and freshwater species. Like many other bivalve mollusks, the soft, meaty interior of Spondylus is edible, so the Spiny Oyster’s valued for its hard, outer shell as well as its interior meat. Despite its name, the Spiny Oyster’s much more closely related to the scallop than to the true oyster.
The shell’s made up of several parts, and the portion used to make inlays is known as Aragonite, which consists of the carbonate mineral, calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Aragonite has the same chemical formula as calcite, but it’s formed by biological and physical processes in marine and freshwater environments.
The crystal lattice of aragonite varies from that of calcite.G13 Looking at smooth, polished Spiny Oyster set in a ring next to turquoise, one sees a very smooth, polished orange or red surface. However, the crystal shape of this mineral actually consists of an orthorhombic system (having three unequal axes at right angles to each other) with needle-like (acicular) crystals, giving it a spiny, branched appearance, unlike the blocky appearance of calcite.
Living Spondylus shells are, indeed, very spiny, but the polished product looks very smooth, with some of its color variation strongly resembling that of the Blood Oyster. The resemblance is strong enough that it’s important to ask, when purchasing these materials, if they’re from Blood Oyster or Spiny Oyster. Artists often use Spiny Oyster as a substitute for Blood Coral. Although not nearly as rare as the Blood Coral or Rose Coral, divers collect Spiny Oyster by hand, making the work laborious and relatively expensive, with some risks.
The most commonly used Spondylid Bivalve shell colors include orange, reds, and purples and may include distinct striations and color variations. One also finds pink, red, brown, yellow, orange, and white on the market. The Yellow Spiny Oyster’s especially rare.
In the American Oceans, the Spondylids occur along the North American coasts, as far north as North Carolina, on the Atlantic Coast, and northwestern Mexico, on the Pacific Coast. It develops in waters to South America. The Orange Spiny Oyster occurs in shallow to moderately deep waters, where snorkelers and scuba divers readily harvest them. Purple Spiny Oysters grow in deeper water, making them more difficult to find and harvest. Their color varies from purple through pink
t’s the ultimate way to “wear your heart on your sleeve”. Gifting the one you love with a piece of fine handcrafted jewelry on Valentine’s Day is one of the best ways to make your feelings tangible. And one of the most memorable!
Giving the gift of jewelry has a long history when it comes to romantic love. Adorning the one you care for with silver and gold was a way of showing how valuable they were. Jewelry as a status symbol resonated with many cultures. Not only did the pieces of precious metal and stone represent love for the wearer, they also showed the importance of the giver.
Fine jewelry given as a gift to commemorate special occasions has long been a popular means of showing love. Weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and other times of celebration offer a reason for showering those who hold our hearts with beautiful jewelry.
These pieces share a dual purpose in that they are potential heirlooms. A ring, necklace or other such ornament that once belonged to a loved one now gone is a way of passing on memories, and love. The desire to hold onto these memories brings great value to the jewelry we remember them wearing.
A benefit to handcrafted jewelry is the ability to express feelings in a deeply personal way. Custom made pieces which hold the stones or designs treasured by the recipient, or pieces that offer an artistic interpretation of the feelings of the giver are an excellent way to express exactly what’s in the heart.
The choices for these expressions of love are wide and varied. Rings aren’t the only way that people tell the world of their commitment to another. Necklaces, earrings and bracelets are all the perfect compliment to give. So, when you’re looking for the best way to express your love this February, remember this: chocolate and flowers are nice but they’re here and gone. A piece of fine handcrafted jewelry remains forever, like your love.
Shell and Mother of Pearl
Shell used in jewelry come from mollusks. Mollusks (or molluscs) are the boneless animals familiar to beachcombers as “seashells” include animals like clams, oysters, mussels, snails, tusk shells, scaphopods, chitons, and cephalopods, like the nautilus and spirula.G11 The shell of the mollusk … the part used by so many Native American artists … is actually a calcareous exoskeleton that encloses, supports and protects the animal’s soft parts.
Most of the material sold on the market as “shell” comes from marine bivalves of one type or another. People know bivalves as the common seashells that wash up on ocean beaches or on banks of rivers and lakes. The sea obviously the primary source of shell however, freshwater lakes and rivers also produce important quantities of this organic material. Sometimes they’re so abundant that they make up a large portion of the beach substrate, as in Shell Beach, of Western Australia, where Cockle shells of a single species, Fragum erugatum make up beach.
The composition of shell makes it resistant and useful for jeweling. It’s made up of several layers. The hard, calcareous layer … the part that one usually finds on the beach once the shell has washed up on the shore … consists of a secretion of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The bivalves deposit enough calcium carbonate in this layer to protect its soft innards, and it can be quite hard and thick in some species.G12
Just inside this hard, protective shell layer, one finds a smoother, nacreous layer (nacre rhymes with “baker”), known commonly as “Mother of Pearl.” It occurs mostly in the ancient families of mollusks, like the Top Snails and Pearl Oysters. Nacre’s the silvery, iridescent, smooth inner surface of fresh oyster shells, abalone, mussels, and clams. It also makes up the outer layer of the pearl. It’s very smooth, lustrous, and beautiful.
Pupa Gilbert, a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin, used polarized x-ray beams and nanoscale imaging at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) facility, at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) to study the structure of nacre. He commented that Nacre’s …
“…composed of thin layers of crystalline aragonite tablets separated by even thinner layers of organic material. … The aragonite tablet crystals in nacre are misoriented with respect to each other. This unique structural arrangement … could play a role in nacre’s remarkable resistance to fracture.” (Yarris, 2008)
Aragonite, also composed of calcium carbonate, has an orthorhombic crystal lattice of acicular crystals, meaning that it forms massed branches of needle-like crystals.