What You Need to Know About Native American Heishi Jewelry

Heishi necklaces are valuable and collectible

Native American Navajo Turquoise Nugget and Heishi Necklace.
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The exact meaning of the word heishi (hee shee) is “shell necklace.” It comes from the Keres language, spoken by the Native Americans living in Kewa, (Santa Domingo Pueblo). They are acknowledged to be the masters of this beautiful, creative form which developed out of their societal heritage. Currently, there are a few artisans producing it at San Felipe and perhaps other pueblos as well. It appears to be the only Indian jewelry that derives directly from Native American history and culture since the metalsmithing and lapidary skills used by the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi have their origins in the European influence of the early Spanish explorers.

When properly used, the name refers only to pieces of shell which have been drilled and ground into beads that are then strung to make either single or multi-strand necklaces. However, in common usage, the word heishi also denotes necklaces whose very tiny beads are made of other natural materials by a similar process.

The origin of heishi is fascinating because it is directly linked to the ancient past of the Kewa Pueblo people (formerly Santo Domingo Pueblo), the people most skilled in its fabrication. Historically, however, the first people to make shell necklaces were those of the Hohokam culture who lived as long as ten thousand years ago in the area of modern-day Tucson, Arizona. They traded and mixed with the Anasazi, “cliff dwellers,” whose members are believed to be the ancestors of the present day Pueblo inhabitants.

The emergence of heishi as an art form was first recorded in 6000 B.C.

Since it predates the introduction of metals, it is safe to say that this must be the oldest form of jewelry in New Mexico, and perhaps in North America as well.

How Can the Artisans Do This Painstakingly Tedious Work?

When a person examines a string of heishi, the first reaction often is, “How on earth can an artisan do that?” or, “To be so flawless, it must have been done by using machines!” The truth is that if it seems unbelievably perfect, it most likely was made by the hands of a highly skilled, extremely patient craftsperson.

Knowing the steps involved in the creation of a good string of heishi may help a potential buyer distinguish and appreciate the difference between an excellent piece of authentic handmade jewelry and an imitation. We use the word “may,” because it must be admitted that some of the imported necklaces often are quite well made too.

Choosing the Raw Materials

First, the raw materials must be carefully chosen. The most commonly used are seashells of several varieties. Centuries ago, the shells used by the Pueblo Indians to make the beads were obtained through trade networks, which extended from the Gulf of California, all the way down into South America. Dark olive or Olivella shells were the original materials, but now others are used: light olive shells, mother of pearl, melon shell, clamshell, pen shell, purple oyster, and, on rare occasions, red, orange or yellow spiny oyster.

When properly constructed of these very hard substances, heishi should last thousands of years. A more contemporary look is obtained by using coral or stones such as lapis, turquoise, jet (lignite), Pipestone, sugilite and serpentine to create exquisite heishi-style necklaces.

Of course, New Mexico is not a seacoast state.

The Kewa have been trading since the beginning of recorded history, and they made their journeys on foot to sites where other tribes had shells and goods to exchange.

It was a long way to travel just to create a necklace! Today they buy their shells (and stones, too) from jewelry and shell supply companies, or from traders who visit the reservation on a regular basis. Even though the raw materials seem relatively humble, they are still expensive. The artisan currently must pay anywhere from $8 - $10 per pound for olive shells to hundreds of dollars for top grade lapis.

Making the Beads

The production of the tiny beads can be a rather hazardous process, probably made more so by the introduction of modern lapidary equipment. Small rough squares are made by snipping off pieces of the strip with a hand tool such as a nipper.

Using tweezers to hold the tiny squares and either a dremel or a dentist’s carbide bur, a small hole is drilled into the center of each square. These are then strung together on a fine piano wire, and the tedious process of changing these crude forms into finished beads begins.

The string of rough beads is shaped by moving the string repeatedly against a turning stone or electric silicone carbide grinding wheel. As he moves the strand against the wheel, the artisan will control the fineness and diameter of the beads with nothing but his hand motion! Unless very carefully done, this can cause the holes to enlarge. At this point, many beads (shell or stone) will be lost, because they chip or crack and fly off as the grinder catches a flaw or burr. When materials of different types are being worked, it may be necessary to sort and work them according to their hardness. For example, pipestone a djet (lignite) are soft and are worn down much faster than the harder materials such as turquoise, shell or lapis.

Some materials are more difficult to process than others. For example, when natural turquoise is ground, approximately 60-79% is lost. This can be minimized to some extent by nipping the initial shape into a rough circle before grinding begins. It is also the reason that natural turquoise, heishi-style necklaces are expensive rarities. Stabilized turquoise, which intrinsically may have more strength, often is the alternate choice for the raw material and is acceptable to the industry.

Stringing and Finishing the Perfect Beads

At this point, a string of cylinders, some times graduated in size has been formed. It is ready for further shaping and smoothing on an electric sanding wheel, using increasingly finer grades of sandpaper. Finally, the beads are washed with clear water and air dried, and then will be given a high polish with “Zam” (a commercial wax), on a turning leather belt. They are now ready to be strung, either alone, in a combination of colors and materials, or together with other beads, into a piece of fine jewelry. This laborious process is not taught in schools, and can only be learned within the Pueblo from skilled members of the family.​

Why Authentic Heishi Is a Valuable Purchase

Authentic handmade heishi is a labor-intensive product with a high value and a justifiable price. Those who truly love this art form believe that an appreciation of its beauty and worth needs to be acquired. That is why it is important to understand the painstaking process. Just to handle heishi is to respect its simplicity, its subtle strength, and the feeling it conveys of being connected to the timeless traditions of the people who made it. If you gently pull a strand through your hand it should feel like a single, smooth, serpent-like piece. The sensation is almost sensuous.

This is because high-quality heishi or heishi-style necklaces are made from beads that have been carefully sorted to remove the chipped or flawed pieces that result from the hand processing. This is not true of inferior necklaces, where waste must be avoided. Moreover, the latter products will have holes that are too large, with the result that the strands feel rough and appear uneven. Inept stringing will also cause this to happen.

Foreign Competition and the Rationale for Buying Native American

Not all heishi is made at the River Pueblos. In the 1970’s, the mass-produced product began to appear in Albuquerque, NM, and elsewhere in response to the growing demand. It continues to be imported from Pacific Rim countries, and unfortunately, it is sold both by Native Americans (including some at Kewa Pueblo) and non-Indians. Though there may be some distinguishing features (for example, the Philippine product is often shinier and has more white spots in the beads), it is often difficult for an untrained eye to differentiate the fraudulent necklace from the real thing. And if the beads are combined with imported fetishes or other decorative inclusions, the necklace may even be identified as “handmade.” Of course, it is not the genuine article. A heishi necklace is a treasure that brings a lifetime of pleasure and pride to the owner.

The best assurance the consumer has of obtaining an authentic piece is to buy only from a reputable, knowledgeable dealer, and ask for a verification in writing describing the artisan, the tribal affiliation, and the materials used.

Information and article provided by the Indian Arts & Crafts Association. Reprinted with permission.