Native American Jewelry

Beyond statement pieces, Native American jewelry makes statements. Many Native American pieces are imbued with cultural significance, identity, tradition and defiance; in historical and present contexts, the jewelry is a vehicle through which to defy Anglo-European assimilation. Akin to a written language, Native American jewelry is a prominent mode of communication. This prominence is highlighted by Jim Hart, a Haida artist and chief, "For our people, what we wear is who we are. Our jewelry and our clothing represent where we come from. We wear our history."


A sweeping view of the origins of Native American jewelry is complex and difficult. There are hundreds of federally recognized tribes, and many more that are not recognized at this time. Each nation, each family and each individual has a unique jewelry-making tradition. There is evidence of jewelry-making in Pre-Columbian times. Beads, shells, animal bone and turquoise all appear to have a long tradition of being incorporated in Native American jewelry. While the meanings may vary due to religious and social reasons, many cultures also incorporated iconic subject-matter like animals and plants in their designs.


In order to showcase the breadth of traditions, venues like the Autry National Center, in Griffith Park, host a marketplace so that over 185 top Native American jewelry designers and craftsmen can display and sell their creations. Noted native American jewelry designers like Sonwai, Verma Nequatewa (Hopi) and Daniel Chattin (Zuni) and his wife, Jovanna Poblano, have all participated in this event.


In 1974, the Indian Arts and Crafts Association was created in order to preserve and nurture the myriad of jewelry-making and craft traditions. This national trade association's mission is to to promote, preserve and protect authentic American Indian arts and craft. The Indian Arts and Crafts Association does not only protect a reflection of lifestyle; it protects a way of life. In 1979, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs surveyed certain nations, e.g. the Zuni and Navajo, and found thirty to forty percent unemployment rates. Yet, in these same communities, eighty-five percent expressed that the arts were primary or secondary sources of income. In 1986, the U.S. Department of Commerce found that the Native American arts industry brought in $700 and $800 million dollars annually. As these statistics indicate, the jewelry contributes to the community and economic vitality of Native American communities.

Black Market

In 2009, Stephanie Simon from "The Wall Street Journal" wrote a provoking piece about cheap jewelry imports from abroad and the affect this had on Native American jewelry artisans in the Southwest. Pulling from the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, Simon cites that seventy-five percent, or a value of $1 billion, of jewelry and other Native American crafts were sold as authentic when they were knockoffs. Despite the inauthenticity, many of the replicas appear of high quality and original artisanship. Calvin Begay, a prominent Native American jewelry designer, exclaimed that pieces had stamps of his signature that he had "never seen or touched." According to Simon, there are certain ways to spot fakes. For instance, terms like "Native American hand-made" instead of "hand-crafted" can trigger a fake. Also, authentic turquoise should be labeled as "natural" and not "stabilized." The U.S. Department of Interior's Indian Arts and Crafts Board and from the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture have gone so far as to create brochures to educate consumers in spotting fakes and curtail the black market. With soaring unemployment rates, livelihoods are in jeopardy.


The black market of Native American jewelry exists because of the high demand. Domestically, designers and stores are also participating in the trend. In 2011, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian's collection inspired an entire jewelry line at QVC - a national retailer of consumer merchandise. Rooted in 10,000 years of tradition, assortments of earrings, necklaces and pendants, that derive from hundreds of nations, were created. QVC's collection ranges from $35 to $375. The fact that a national retailer would adapt Native American jewelry designs is indicative of the popularity and embrace of Native American jewelry and culture in mainstream society.