History of Native American Turquoise Jewelry in The USA
The Beautiful blue and green hues of turquoise have long been prized by the Native American peoples of the southwestern part of the USA. Entire cultures were built on mining turquoise and crafting sacred and special items from the attractive stone in areas which are now part of both New Mexico and Nevada. American Indian peoples were making necklace strands and other turquoise jewelry by hand many centuries before the first European settlers arrived. Because turquoise was so highly prized, it was widely exchanged and circulated among the Native peoples of the Americas, and the each of the tribes developed their own unique names for the striking blue stone. Scientific testing has proven that some ancient beads found in central and South America were originally dug from the Cerrillos turquoise mines near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
When the Europeans brought the technology of working metals like silver with them to the new world, the American Indians who learned the silver smith trade learned eventually began to add turquoise with the silver to develop their own special style of jewelry. A Zuni man by the name of Kineshde is believed to be the first to add turquoise to the hand crafted silver items he was making in the late 1800s.
Turquoise first came into popular high fashion in the US during the early 1890s, but Persian turquoise was the focus of the demand at that time, and only a few deposits of high quality turquoise were known in the US. In the following years, a number of high quality deposits previously worked by Native Americans were “rediscovered”, and shortly after 1900 and Americans began to recognize that American turquoise from the Western US was the equal of any in the world. Interest again began to peak around 1908-1910, and a considerable amount of American turquoise was mined, especially in Nevada. The majority of the Turquoise jewelry produced prior to 1910 was made by well-known jewelry manufacturing companies like Tiffany’s, and was produced in the standard Victorian styles of those times.
None of this was what we would recognize as Indian style turquoise jewelry. There were a few Native Americans making turquoise and silver pieces in what we now see as the traditional style, but they produced very few pieces and their very simple tools increased the man hours each piece needed for completion. That era was essentially the dawn of the traditional styles for silver-turquoise jewelry. America’s fascination with turquoise and genuine Indian Jewelry really began in earnest during the 1920’s when more people from outside the southwest began to see the beauty of this artistic jewelry. At that time, the Harvey House restaurant chain opened a number of facilities across the southwest during the great days of popular rail travel across the US. At first, Indian Jewelry was only sold as curios in the restaurants for the patrons touring the west. Earrings and thin, small bracelets stamped with arrows and bows and containing symmetrically cut small oval pieces of turquoise were the types most in demand. The pieces produced during this time are still termed as having been made in the “Fred Harvey” style. Heavy Indian Jewelry did not become popular until after 1925, when the classic squash-blossom necklaces were first brought to the tourist market. The squash-blossom craze lasted until about 1940, when they were discontinued for the most part by most Indian artisans for requiring too much work and too much turquoise.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the concho belt changed from a simple silver belt to a more ornate belt with one to multiple turquoise stones in all the individual sections of the belt. The tourist jewelry of that era is highly collectable today. It began to be noticed that sales of Native American jewelry had significant potential to provide a reliable income source to tribal members across Arizona and New Mexico. During those years, schools and classes were established at several reservations to train young men in the trade of making Native American style Sterling and turquoise jewelry. In the following decades, many very talented artists came out of these schools. During the years following WWII, many Americans traveled across the country, and on their trips through the Arizona-New Mexico area, discovered that local traders had rooms full of this Native American jewelry, which the traders called pawn pieces. Most of these were jewelry pieces the Indian people made for themselves and pawned for one of two reasons: either they needed money, or it was considered a safe storage place. As a result of the popularity of these pawn pieces, a host of trading posts sprang up in the Southwest and knowledge of this unique style of jewelry became much more widespread. New jewelry was also created to meet the growing tourist demand. Those who appreciated the beautiful American turquoise began to recognize the general differences in matrix patterns and color, etc. between the different mine sources. During this time, which extended to the early 1950’s, turquoise began to be named, for sales purposes, after the mine in which it was found, such as Lone Mountain, Royston, Blue Gem, and others.
An increasing number of American Indians continued to handcraft silver jewelry in the 1950s and early 1960’s in the traditional way. Up to that time their work was generally popular only in the southwest region of the US, but the increasing amount of material available began to enable a larger audience to see and appreciate this beautiful style of jewelry art. Even so, it did not become widely popular across the entire US until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. At that time the simple and natural beauty of turquoise jewelry became the rage of the American fashion scene. The prices of the old pawn jewelry rocketed upward, and a craze for Indian turquoise jewelry swelled and boosted demand (and prices) for turquoise to previously undreamed levels.
The increased prices and demand caused the re-opening of many mines and the import of Indian “style” jewelry made by manufacturers in Mexico, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In time, the market became glutted, the consumer was confused by overpriced synthetic, stabilized and plastic imitation materials and by 1981 the supply was high but the demand was gone. The market collapsed and most of the American turquoise mines were shut down and have remained closed since that time. Turquoise demand hit a low water mark in the early 1980s, but has been slowly and steadily increasing in popularity since that time. Most American mines have remained closed, and in recent years high demand for natural American turquoise has caused once again significant increases in prices.
Smith Chen is an author and internet marketing consultant.
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