Why Native American Styles Are Sweeping Silver Jewelry Sales



Southwestern style is surging in popularity among jewelry designers. What’s behind the enduring appeal of Native American iconography?

A treasured collection of big silver belt buckles, turquoise cuffs, and vintage squash blossom necklaces from a youth spent in Texas inspired jeweler Jacquie Aiche to start buying arrowheads at roadside tents during the gem shows in Tucson, Ariz., 11 years ago. The Los Angeles–based designer, who is part Choctaw, says the pieces served as muses for her signature Deco Arrow studs in vermeil. Aiche continued to learn more about Native American symbols, even securing an education at the Esalen retreat in Big Sur, Calif., where she met a shaman who schooled her on the healing properties of spirit animals. All of these efforts will culminate this summer, when she debuts a Spirit Animal collection in 14k gold and, on request, silver. “I think it’s important to respect where the original art comes from,” she says. 

Aiche isn’t the only designer besotted with Native American style. Nearly 150 years after Southwestern tribes started experimenting with silversmithing, their perfectly imperfect aesthetic has yet to be challenged. And in a testament to the enduring power of their motifs, scores of non–Native American designers are now paying homage to their work in a host of new jewelry collections—mostly in silver, but plenty in gold—that promise to introduce Native American designs to a generation of younger consumers. 

 

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Inset: Anna Sheffield cuff in silver with turquoise and 0.2 ct. t.w. diamonds; $2,800; above: Squash blossom earrings in sterling silver and 14k yellow gold with turquoise and 0.19 ct. t.w. reclaimed gray diamonds; $2,200; Anna Sheffield, NYC; 212-925-7010; annasheffield.com
 

Mining History

Take the latest silver jewels from New York City designer Pamela Love, for example. Rife with feathers, arrows, turquoise, snakes, and other motifs and stones representative of the Native American aesthetic, her collection reflects her long-standing love of Southwestern style, which she fell for during college (she used to crisscross the region on road trips). Candice Pool of Finn and Anna Sheffield, also based in New York City, are two other talented designers increasingly featuring Native American elements, including turquoise and silver, in their collections. 

All are drawing upon a rich history of jewelry making dating back to the Pueblo or Anasazi Indians who turned turquoise into beads more than 1,000 years ago. Around 1870, Spanish silver jewelry began to appear in the Southwest, inspiring Native Americans, including the Navajo, to create their own work using Mexican silver ingot coins and German silver—“a mix of metal and tin,” according to Mark Sublette, owner of Medicine Man Gallery Tucson. And given the abundance of turquoise in the American Southwest, the gem became prevalent in bohemian silver styles that dominated the fashion scene in the 1970s. 

 

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Pluma ring in sterling silver with opal; $175; Pamela Love, NYC; 212-564-8260; sales@pamelalove.com; pamelalovenyc.com
 

Turquoise’s Time Has Come (Again)

Today’s 1970s revival has elevated turquoise’s profile once again. Sheffield, whose interest in Southwestern style is linked to her childhood in New Mexico, is a big proponent of the gem and its use by Native American artisans. “The culture as well as the sacredness of the area informs me in everything from design to my personal ethos,” she says. 

Sheffield makes this abundantly clear in her new Heritage collection, which features pieces from her personal collection of vintage and contemporary Native American jewelry. Rendered in sterling silver with raw Southwest turquoise, the pieces have been reworked and dusted with diamonds by bench jewelers in New York City. 

The one-of-a-kind jewels pay tribute to ancient techniques and traditions while also reflecting Sheffield’s signature style. She says her goal is to preserve the artistic trade and the sacred land on which many Native American jewelry traditions were born. To that end, 20 percent of all sales from the Heritage line benefit Sheffield’s Future Heritage Fund, a collaboration with the New Mexico Community Foundation, which earmarks donations for New Mexico–based nonprofits that support the preservation of Native American arts and indigenous wildlife. 

“I work with native artisans and adapt vintage pieces for sale alongside my original designs,” she adds. 

 

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Necklace in sterling silver and No. 8 turquoise by Navajo silversmith Jerry Cowboy; $3,800; Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise, Window Rock, Ariz.; mnelson@navajoartscrafts.com; 928-871-4090 ext. 288; gonavajo.com
 

Natural Instincts 

Making silver and turquoise jewels with Native American themes comes naturally to Carolyn Pollack, considering her 40-year-old firm, Relios, calls New Mexico home. 

Pollack has partnered with Native American artists in the past to create authentic collections and now designs her own. Squash blossom necklaces, named for an edible flower commonly found in Native American designs, are among her favorite styles. “When you attend any important Native American art event or traditional ceremony, young and old, female or male, will proudly be wearing their most cherished squash blossom necklaces,” she says. 

Maintaining a respect for tradition, however, doesn’t mean designers are compelled to constantly rehash old motifs. Native American jewelry designer Maria Samora hails from the Taos Pueblo in Taos, N.M. (her father is of Pueblo descent), and prides herself on crafting modern-day Native American styles. Executed in sterling silver, 18k gold, and two-tone combinations, her contemporary accents include tube-set diamonds, clean lines, and subtle nods to the mountainous landscape of her home. 

Other unexpected elements in her collection include bullet-shape gemstones, lily pads, and quatrefoils. And while her style doesn’t necessarily feature iconic Native American motifs, Samora is fueling a conversation about the evolution of Native American jewelry. Case in point: In 2009, a trio of her hammered disc bracelets in 18k gold made the cover of a supplement for the Santa Fe Indian Market, which draws scores of consumer collectors each year. Another bracelet is part of Native Fashion Now, a traveling jewelry exhibition for Native American designs organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

“A lot of Native American artists are doing couture-quality pieces that don’t necessarily stand out as being Native American,” Samora says. 
 

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5-Spike earrings in sterling silver with turquoise; $450; Pamela Love, NYC; 212-564-8260; sales@pamelalove.com; pamelalovenyc.com
 

Gold Rush

By the same unconventional token, more designers are looking beyond silver to pay tribute to Native American style. For Pool, who grew up digging for arrowheads on friends’ ranches in her home state of Texas, the choice to make some of her Southwest-inspired pieces in gold is purely taste-driven. 

“I still have all my Native American jewelry—we all had concho belts and turquoise bangles—but so much of my grown-up look is gold and diamond,” she says.  

Her newer pieces are executed in 18k yellow gold with diamonds. An arrow-motif bolo chain, for example, features “the tiniest wheat chain to represent the traditional braided leather cord,” she says, and a tiny squash blossom pendant necklace is also in the works.

New York City’s Simon Alcantara is another designer channeling a Native American vibe in his StarChild and Numinous collections, which feature 14k gold arrowheads, spearheads, and chains, all available in sterling silver. 

“I love the idea of using indigenous and artisanal materials and techniques to create something that looks modern and relevant with a nod to ancient cultures,” he says. Once again, everything old is new again.

 

Top: Photograph by Tom Corbett, styling by Catherine Peridis

Market editor: Jennifer Heebner. Makeup by Alexis Williams for The Brooks Agency. Hair by Monae Everett. Manicure by Angela Marinescu. T-shirt by Alternative.

Necklace in silver with simulated turquoise, $495, wide ring in silver with simulated turquoise, $298, bracelets in silver and with simulated turquoise, blackened agate, and dyed bamboo coral, $169–$198, Thomas Sabo, NYC, 212-520-4972, thomassabo.com; earrings in silver with Sleeping Beauty turquoise, $85, rings in silver with Sleeping Beauty turquoise and spiny oyster shell, $99–$125, Carolyn Pollack for Relios, Albuquerque, N.M., 855-266-6066, carolynpollack.com

 

KNOW YOUR RESOURCES

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Want to learn more about Native American jewelry? Check out these sources of information:

National Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu) Headquartered in Washington, D.C.—with a branch in New York City—the museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and educates the public on the history and arts of Native Americans of the western hemisphere. 

Santa Fe Indian Market (swaia.org) The nonprofit Southwestern Association for Indian Arts organizes the annual juried show for Native American artists of all types. The world-renowned event takes place in the third week of August in Santa Fe, N.M., and attracts upwards of 150,000 visitors. 

Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise (gonavajo.com) Since 1941, this guild organization based in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation, has sold authentic jewelry, rugs, pottery, and crafts from Navajo, Zuni, Santo Domingo, and other Native American artisans. Look for the NACE booth at JCK Las Vegas. 

 Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family Published in 2014 by Smithsonian Books and edited by Native American jewelry expert Lois Sherr Dubin, this tome explores the myths and motifs of Navajo jewelry through the work of the Yazzie family of New Mexico.

Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (indianartsandculture.org) From Santa Fe, N.M., this state-run museum acts as a clearinghouse of art and culture about the Native peoples of the Southwest. —JH

 

Open ring in silver with turquoise, $1,105Stephen Dweck, NYC, 212-764-3030, emmy@stephendweck.com, stephendweck.com; Shield ring in sterling silver with CZ, $279Thomas Sabo, NYC, 212-520-4972, thomassabo.com; Cluster ring in silver with Sleeping Beauty turquoise, $159Carolyn Pollack for Relios, Albuquerque, N.M., 855-266-6066, carolynpollack.com; Windy Day cuff in silver, $1,500, Ellipse cuff in silver, $1,200Maria Samora, Taos, N.M., 575-779-0982, samorastudio.com; one-of-a-kind cuff in sterling silver with turquoise and diamonds, $17,000Anna Sheffield, NYC, 212-925-7010, annasheffield.com