Tuesday, June 25, 2024

How to identify Navajo jewelry?

History and Background

Navajo jewelry has a rich history that dates back to the late 19th century, when the Navajo people began incorporating silver into their traditional adornments. Initially, the Navajo crafted jewelry from natural materials such as turquoise, shells, and stones. The introduction of silverwork to the Navajo is often attributed to a Mexican blacksmith named Atsidi Sani, who taught the craft to the Navajo around 1865.

The Navajo people quickly adopted and mastered the art of silversmithing, developing unique techniques and styles that set their work apart. By the early 20th century, Navajo jewelry had become a significant aspect of their culture and economy, often used in trade and as a means of artistic expression.

Materials Used

Silver: The primary metal used in Navajo jewelry is sterling silver, which consists of 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper. Sterling silver is preferred for its durability and beautiful luster.

Turquoise: One of the most iconic materials in Navajo jewelry is turquoise. This vibrant blue to green stone has been used for centuries due to its beauty and cultural significance. Turquoise is believed to possess protective and healing properties.

Other Stones: In addition to turquoise, Navajo jewelers also use a variety of other stones, including coral, jet, onyx, and spiny oyster shell. These stones are often set in intricate designs to enhance the overall aesthetic of the piece.

Organic Materials: Occasionally, Navajo jewelry features organic materials like bone, wood, and shell. These materials add a unique touch and reflect the traditional aspects of Navajo craftsmanship.

Design Characteristics

Stamping and Engraving: Navajo jewelry is renowned for its intricate stamping and engraving patterns. These designs are typically created using handmade stamps and tools, resulting in unique and detailed motifs that often include geometric patterns, arrows, and thunderbirds.

Cluster Work: Another distinctive feature of Navajo jewelry is cluster work, where multiple stones are arranged closely together in a single piece. This technique is often seen in rings, bracelets, and pins, creating a visually striking and colorful display.

Squash Blossom Necklaces: One of the most recognizable Navajo jewelry designs is the squash blossom necklace. This piece features a series of silver beads interspersed with squash blossom pendants, culminating in a large central pendant known as the “naja.” The squash blossom necklace is a symbol of cultural pride and craftsmanship.

Concho Belts: Concho belts are another iconic Navajo creation. These belts feature large, silver conchos (discs) often adorned with intricate designs and set with turquoise or other stones. Concho belts are both functional and decorative, showcasing the silversmith’s skill and creativity.

Silversmith Techniques

Hammering: Hammering is a fundamental technique in Navajo silversmithing. Silversmiths use various hammers and anvils to shape and texture the silver, creating unique patterns and forms.

Casting: Sand casting is a traditional method used by Navajo silversmiths to create detailed and intricate designs. This process involves creating a mold from sand and pouring molten silver into it. Once the silver cools and solidifies, the mold is broken away, revealing the finished piece.

Inlay Work: Inlay is a technique where stones are carefully cut and set into a silver base. This method requires precision and skill, as the stones must fit perfectly within the silver framework. Inlay designs often feature vibrant patterns and complex motifs.

Overlay: Overlay involves layering one piece of silver over another, often with the top layer featuring cut-out designs. This technique creates depth and contrast, highlighting the intricate patterns and adding a three-dimensional aspect to the jewelry.


Hallmarks are stamps or marks placed on jewelry to indicate the maker, origin, and sometimes the quality of the piece. Navajo jewelry often features hallmarks that can help identify the silversmith or workshop that created the piece.

Maker’s Mark: A maker’s mark is a unique symbol or set of initials used by the silversmith. These marks are usually stamped on the back of the jewelry and can be traced to specific artisans or workshops. Collectors often use reference books or online databases to match hallmarks to their creators.

Sterling Silver Mark: To indicate the purity of the silver, Navajo jewelry is often stamped with “sterling” or “925.” This mark ensures that the piece is made from high-quality sterling silver.

Tribal Mark: Some Navajo jewelry may also feature a tribal mark, indicating its Navajo origin. This mark can be a symbol, such as a traditional motif or a specific design element that is recognized as Navajo.

Comparison with Other Styles

Navajo vs. Zuni: While both Navajo and Zuni jewelry feature intricate designs and high-quality materials, there are distinct differences between the two styles. Zuni jewelry is known for its fine lapidary work, with detailed stone inlay and petite point designs. Navajo jewelry, on the other hand, often emphasizes bold silverwork and larger, more prominent stones.

Navajo vs. Hopi: Hopi jewelry is characterized by its overlay technique, where one layer of silver is cut out and placed over another, creating a distinct shadow effect. Navajo jewelry, while it can also use overlay, tends to feature more stamping and larger, more colorful stones.

Tips for Verification

Examine the Hallmarks: Look for maker’s marks, sterling silver marks, and any tribal symbols. Research these marks to verify the authenticity of the piece.

Check the Materials: Authentic Navajo jewelry will use high-quality materials, including sterling silver and genuine stones. Be wary of pieces with plastic or synthetic stones.

Inspect the Craftsmanship: Authentic Navajo jewelry will display excellent craftsmanship, with precise stamping, inlay, and stone setting. Look for any signs of poor workmanship, such as uneven patterns or loose stones.

Seek Provenance: Provenance refers to the history of ownership and origin of a piece. Authentic Navajo jewelry often comes with documentation or certificates of authenticity that can provide valuable information about its origin and maker.

Consult Experts: If you’re unsure about the authenticity of a piece, consult an expert in Native American jewelry. Many reputable dealers and appraisers specialize in this field and can provide valuable insights.

Care and Maintenance

Regular Cleaning: To keep Navajo jewelry looking its best, clean it regularly with a soft cloth and mild soap. Avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive materials that can damage the silver or stones.

Storage: Store your jewelry in a dry, cool place, preferably in individual compartments or soft pouches to prevent scratching and tarnishing. Avoid exposing it to extreme temperatures or humidity.

Polishing: Over time, silver can tarnish. Use a silver polishing cloth to gently buff away tarnish, but be careful not to over-polish, as this can remove the patina that adds character to older pieces.

Professional Maintenance: Periodically, take your jewelry to a professional for cleaning and maintenance. They can check for loose stones, repair any damage, and ensure that your pieces remain in excellent condition.

By understanding these aspects of Navajo jewelry, you can better appreciate its beauty and craftsmanship. Whether you’re a collector, a casual buyer, or simply an admirer, recognizing the unique qualities of Navajo jewelry will enhance your appreciation for this exquisite art form.

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