(Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month)

The Enduring Power Of Turquoise Jewelry In Native American Cultures

And what it means today.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images/Shutterstock

Quannah Chasinghorse arrived at the Met Gala in September draped in silver and turquoise jewelry: layers of turquoise heishi beads, a traditional beaded squash-blossom necklace, turquoise cluster earrings and matching cuffs, and rings adorned with turquoise inlays and cabochons.

Unlike most of the attendees, the model’s jewelry wasn’t on loan from a Vogue advertiser, but rather from her aunt, Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw, a former Miss Navajo Nation, who collects pieces from Native American artisans throughout the Southwest. There, turquoise is more than just a stone: it’s a throughline connecting generations, an essential part of the economy, and a deep cultural tradition for many tribes.

“The turquoise represents protection, guidance, and love. All of which I felt walking the red carpet with the spirit of my ancestors walking with me,” Chasinghorse wrote on Instagram following the event.

While the model and activist is Hän Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota, she was born and partially raised on the Navajo Nation. Jewelry-makers there have been known for their work with silver and turquoise since the 19th century, when a Mexican silversmith taught them the trade. The relationship between the semiprecious gem and Native American peoples in the region dates back much further, though: more than a millennium ago, the Ancestral Puebloan, Mogollon, and Hohokam groups mined and traded turquoise across the Southwest, using it in jewelry, ceremonial tools, and figurines. They made pendants, beads, and bracelets and carried the stone from the earliest known mines in modern New Mexico as far west as Nevada and California.

Taylor Hill/WireImage/Getty Images

Today, many of the tribes that still live on this land have developed distinctive styles of turquoise jewelry. There is the intricate cluster work of the Zuni, with tiny stones arranged in neat rows or floral patterns; the small and painstakingly handmade heishi beads of the Santo Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo; the two-tone silver overlay of the Hopi, with motifs inspired by centuries-old basketry and pottery designs; and the elaborate silversmithing of the Navajo, with stones adorning bracelets, concho belts, bolos, and everything in between. And this is far from an exhaustive list.

“We have this really rich tradition here in the Southwest,” says Carrie Cannon, an ethnobotanist ​​for the Hualapai Tribe who researches and presents on the history of turquoise. “A lot of Native Americans' stories and history are tied to this [craft] and it needs to be shared with younger generations so that it can persist.”

This is especially true because many of the techniques and traditions are passed down orally from generation to generation, rather than written down in any book or website.

(+)
Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
(+)
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Archive Photos/Getty Images
1/2

Neeko Garcia is a third-generation Navajo (Diné) silversmith and grew up marveling at all the turquoise jewelry she’d see when she visited her grandparents on the reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. Raised in a mostly non-Native community in Texas, though, she didn’t learn the craft until her adulthood, buying a butane torch and soldering supplies and setting up in her apartment bedroom. Eventually, she connected with several master Navajo silversmiths over Instagram and spent time at their studios honing skills such as stamp work and tufa casting. Today, her line, ByNeeko, is a reflection of her many facets: part Navajo, part Hispanic; steeped in tradition, but inspired by the present.

Garcia cuts and shapes the turquoise she uses by hand and speaks reverently of the process: “Turquoise is our gift from Mother Earth, and it connects us to her being. It's also part of some of our creation stories. So being able to cut into a piece of rock and see what's inside it with the matrix and the veins and the color, it's something beautiful.”

Turquoise is so celebrated in part because it’s so varied: the stone is formed as water trickles through a host rock containing copper, aluminum, and other minerals, which combine to create deposits over time. Depending on the mineral composition, the turquoise can range from a bright sky blue to deep green, with countless iterations in between, and often contains inclusions of the host rock, known as “matrix.”

Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Genuine turquoise jewelry can be expensive not only because of the time and skilled labor that goes into it, but also because the stone itself is so valuable, especially as supplies have dried up at most U.S. mines.

“Jewelry with turquoise from the 1970s that might have cost $300 today is closer to $3,000, and a lot of that has to do with the cost of the turquoise,” says Ross Althuser, curator of a recent exhibit of Navajo jewelry at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture.

“We hoard our turquoise because it's our way of life,” says Puebloan jewelry artist Rey Pacheco, who works alongside her husband Farrell. “Some people invest in stocks; our stocks are our stones. And it's truly an investment because when you cut into rock, you never know if it's going to crumble or if it's going to stay solid.”

Many of the Pacheco’s designs, including the fantail necklace that won Farrell top prize at the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market in 2018, feature mosaic inlay, a technique in which tiny, irregular pieces of stone are arranged piece by piece. The style has a meaningful history among Puebloan jewelers, who, during the Great Depression, inlaid jewelry not just with turquoise and shell, but also with found materials like plastic from car-battery casings and fast-food utensils. Thunderbird jewelry, as it was known, became popular among tourists and helped the tribe endure the hardships of the era.

ByNeeko Earrings

“I think what keeps us inlaying is it's in our blood,” says Rey. “Instead of surrendering to the Depression, we made something that came out of it… That alone is motivation for us to keep doing what we're doing — to keep our heritage, to honor our ancestors.”

That these crafts continue to thrive for generations to come is an economic imperative as much as a cultural one. Among the Zuni, for example, as much as 80 percent of households make a living through the arts. One challenge they face, though, is a flood of imitation jewelry on the market, often from the Philippines. (A recent federal investigation, by far the largest of its kind, resulted in the seizure of 350,000 pieces of fake “Native American” jewelry valued at more than $35,000,000.)

“Native people are still able to sell their jewelry and make a living at it — but at the same time, they would be doing much better if they didn't have to compete with this off-price, imported jewelry,” says Althuser.

Garcia, too, is dismayed when she sees non-Native jewelry brands selling squash blossom necklaces on Instagram, and urges people to instead buy directly from Native artists — both for the sake of authenticity and to learn the story behind each piece.

Still, she says, she’s proud to finally see turquoise jewelry on stages as big as the Met Gala and the halls of Congress (on Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history) and she hopes younger generations will be inspired to keep these traditions alive.

“It's a way for us to have a voice and to let people know that we're still here — we're still creating Navajo silversmith jewelry,” she says. “We can be fashion designers, it can be seen on the biggest celebrity. We're still here. We're still a tribe, we're still the Diné.”