Important Tips for Buying Native American Jewelry -

One of the many things the Southwest is known for is the iconic jewelry style featuring silver, turquoise, and other stones. These beautiful and instantly recognizable Native American jewelry pieces make a statement, whether they are crafted by Navajo, Hopi, or Zuni artisans.

It’s important to know something about Southwestern jewelry before making a purchase and working with a trusted jeweler or source is essential. We consulted with Keith Austin, who has owned Austin’s Fine Jewelry in Las Cruces for more than three decades, to learn more about Southwestern jewelry.

History of Native American Jewelry

Turquoise has long been mined by Native Americans, who shaped the bright stones into beads and pendants. After the arrival of Spanish explorers, Navajo, Pueblo, and other area tribes began to incorporate European silversmithing styles with local materials and techniques that had been passed down for generations. The distinctive style we recognize as Southwestern jewelry came from this fusion of materials and techniques.

Turquoise often symbolizes both sky and water in Native American cultures. For the Diné, the Navajo people, turquoise is associated with healing and protection, and the stone is used to mark significant life milestones, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death.

Beware of Fake Native American Jewelry

Quality Native American jewelry is not inexpensive due to the materials and craftsmanship involved. Jewelry being sold below market value should raise alarms as many imported fakes have flooded the market. Buyers should do everything they can to ensure that what they are purchasing is authentic.

To protect yourself and your investment, purchase Southwestern jewelry directly from a trusted artist or from a reliable jewelry store. Many jewelry stores sell previously owned estate jewelry or what is sometimes called “old pawn” jewelry that was at some point pawned by the artist or previous owner. If you need help, a knowledgeable jeweler like Keith Austin can educate you on what to look for in Native American jewelry.

Close-up of a Navajo squash blossom necklace made of silver and turquoise.
A squash blossom necklace can be a treasured piece to hand down for generations.

How to Identify Native American Jewelry

When you think of Southwest Native American jewelry, you are likely picturing the work of the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi. These tribes have families who have been making jewelry for generations and have developed mastery of silversmithing.

How do you know if a piece you are considering is Navajo, Hopi, or Zuni? You may not always be able to differentiate, but here are some general differences.

Navajo jewelry is often characterized by expertly shaped silver surrounding the attached stones, whether the stones are turquoise or another semi-precious stone.

Zuni jewelry often has expertly cut stones inlaid into silver foundations. Zuni fetish jewelry features intricately carved animals, which are thought to bring luck, power, and protection to those who carry them.

Hopi master silversmiths create jewelry that showcases sterling silver overlay, where one piece of silver is laid over another. The top piece is carved, cut out, and otherwise embellished. It is then soldered atop a silver piece to create a multidimensional look.


Early Native American jewelry did not have hallmarks. However, when the railroads brought tourism to New Mexico, the practice of hallmarking jewelry was encouraged by trading posts. Today, hallmarks can often be used to help identify tribal origins or an individual artist.

Handmade or Handcrafted?

Is there a difference between “handmade” and “handcrafted”? Yes, Keith Austin says, there is! Handmade means designing, doing the lapidary work, and building a piece completely by hand. Handcrafted jewelry was made using purchased elements, such as beads and other items purchased at a jewelry supply store. A handmade piece of jewelry will cost more than a handcrafted item.

What Materials Are Used in Southwestern Jewelry?

When you think of Southwestern jewelry, you likely imagine iconic pieces such as silver and turquoise bolo ties, rings, bracelets, and necklaces. Although many older Native American jewelry pieces were made with coin silver, sterling silver is more common today.

Additional materials included in Southwestern jewelry include: 

Deep red or orange coral was introduced by the Europeans, and it became revered by Native American artists for its rare beauty. You may find it combined in a piece with turquoise to make colorful designs.

Spiny Oyster Shell
This material, made from the shells of spiny oysters found off the coasts of California and Mexico, comes in many different colors, including red, brown, orange, yellow, and purple.

Acoma Jet
Acoma Jet is fossilized wood, that can be carved, inlaid, or set like a gemstone, and offers a stark contrast to bright coral and turquoise designs.

Navajo bracelets of turquoise and silver feature classic Native American jewelry styles.
Navajo bracelets of turquoise and silver.

The Distinctive Style of Southwestern Jewelry

When you see silver stamping and chunky turquoise stones, Southwestern jewelry immediately comes to mind. However, Native American jewelry has evolved into many modern styles. Visit someplace like the Santa Fe Indian Market to meet hundreds of artists working in traditional and contemporary styles, using techniques passed down through the generations.


Zuni fetish necklace is one example of Southwestern jewelry.
Zuni fetish necklace featuring birds.

Bracelets and cuffs are a staple in Southwestern jewelry, both for women and men. Thick cuffs often feature quality craftsmanship, carvings, etchings, and stamping. Some have enormous pieces of turquoise and others are quite delicate. Other Southwestern bracelets showcase one-of-a-kind stones set with saw-tooth bezels.


Southwestern-style pendants often include traditional Native American motifs — such as feathers, animals, and other icons. Large squash blossom necklaces have been popular for generations. In some pieces, the stones themselves are the intended focal point of the piece. Zuni necklaces may have many strands of small carved fetishes interspersed with beads.


A single large stone makes for a bold design, while a series of delicate turquoise rounds add a playful twist to traditional materials. Rings and earrings may even feature a combination of many different stones and natural materials such as coral.

Cleaning Your Southwestern Jewelry

Silver tarnishes over time and some people like an aged look on their Southwestern jewelry. However, if you prefer, the silver can be cleaned with a paste of baking soda and water to remove the tarnish, then rinsed and dried. For a little shine, use a soft cloth.

You may think about soaking the jewelry in a cleaning liquid or an ultrasonic cleaner, but jeweler Keith Austin warns against it. Native American jewelry, especially Navajo pieces, may have stones that are set on a sawdust base to cushion them, so they won’t break while being set. If soaked in a liquid cleaner, that sawdust may expand and push the stone out.

If you’re not confident in cleaning the piece yourself, take it to a trusted jeweler, like Austin’s Fine Jewelry in Las Cruces.


Southwestern jewelry comes in a wide range of iconic looks. Whether it’s a piece of estate jewelry or something created recently, it is bound to become a favorite.


This story sponsored by Austin’s Fine Jewelry

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