Santo Domingo Jewelry - Shell and Bead Jewelry Tradition

Santo Domingo Jewelry Making Tradition … Little Tiny Beads!

The Santo Domingo people do little metalworking. For centuries, they have fashioned necklaces of stone, shell and wood. Today, modern equipment has made the working of these same materials a fine art form. Their jewelry is characterized by the making of round beads from turquoise, coral, shell and other materials, strung together into strands for necklaces and earrings. The most common beads are called heishi (he-she). These are disks or tubes with a hole in the center. They are strung together to form a flexible strand and are often of graduated size. It is not uncommon to find pieces of coral or turquoise nuggets strung with the heishi, or simply strands of polished turquoise nuggets.

The Santo Domingo reservation is the home of some of the pre-eminent Native American jewelers and artists. Santo Domingo jewelry of heishi, typically shell, turquoise, jet, and other precious and non-precious materials, is world renowned for its fineness in materials and workmanship.

Santo Domingo necklaces are made of heishi, discs of shell or turquoise that have been ground, drilled, and strung to create a beautiful, melodious mix of stones and colors.

What is Heishi?

Literally, it means "shell" and it's pieces of shell that have been drilled and ground down to little beads, then strung into a necklace. Lately, though, it's come to mean any hand-made tiny beads of natural material.

Info snippet: Did you know... the origin of heishi is linked to the people in Santo Domingo and San Felipe Pueblo Indians. It's the OLDEST form of Native American jewelry in New Mexico (and maybe even North America)?!?!?!

The shells used by the Pueblo Indians were traded from the Gulf of California. And when you look at one and think - "No one could have POSSIBLY made's too perfect! Remember, you're looking at a piece of art made by someone HIGHLY skilled and VERY patient!

Heishi pieces can also include other materials such as coral, lapis, turquoise, jet, pipestone and serpentine along with or instead of seashells in the more contemporary pieces.

The steps are numerous and I have to say, if I were making these, my fingertips would have been gone long ago. After the raw materials have been chosen, they are cut into strips using a blade; small squares are made by nipping the strips; drill a small hole into the squares; string the squares; grind and shape the squares, then smooth them on a turning grinding stone; continue smoothing with finer and finer sanding material; wash in water and dry. THEN...polish to a high shine on a turning leather belt.

Lorraine Caté was the Indian Arts & Crafts Association (IACA) 2003 Artist of the Year. She works from her Santa Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico, studio to produce exquisite examples of the ancient jewelry art, heishi.

Durango Silver Company has a great write up about heishi.

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Other Native American Jewelry Traditions

Stones and Stone Treatments in Native American Jewelry

What To Look For When Purchasing Native American Jewelry

Return from Santo Domingo Jewelry to Native American Jewelry

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