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The Coral Story

by Cristina Del Mare


In the 16th century, news of the great geographical discoveries prompted the most enlightened Western artists to portray the mysteries of those far-off places, which could still only be imagined. Paintings became the vehicle for new ways of viewing the world. Among them the Allegory of the Discovery of America, by the Tuscan artist Jacopo Zucchi, is particularly significant in terms of our specific topic. Now conserved in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, the small picture, done in oils on copper, was one of the paintings adorning the “Studiolo” which the Granduca Francesco I de Medici created in 1510 as a “closet of rare and precious things… ingenious devices and suchlike”, a Wunderkammer or laboratory housing the “wonders” reflecting the contemporary state of knowledge. Zucchi filled his allegory with scenes from classical mythology and details of the natural world: the extraordinary discovery of a new continent is flanked, or indeed symbolised, by the remarkable attributes of “naturalia corallii”. The biological origins of coral had not been established when Zucchi painted its characteristic ramifications1, and its exceptional nature was a perfect foil for the mystery of a land whose features were still to be explored. Thus here we have coral as an allegorical link between the Old World and the New.

In fact it has always combined myth and magic, for its bright red colour has fascinated people in the East and West alike. Its mysterious origins and its ambiguous nature, combining the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, have given rise to conjecture and myths, reinforcing its mythical potency and aura of white magic. In classical antiquity it was the blood of Medusa, “soft and diaphanous under water, as hard as stone in the air”. Or again it was a tree of blood, symbolising procreative force, a link with the divine and the supernatural.

Thanks to its association with well-being, good luck and life, and its use as an amulet against the evil eye and as a medicine able to cure various complaints, coral became a commercial asset from very early times. At the beginning of the Christian era it spread from the Mediterranean to Asia, following the shipping routes used to transport incense. Once across the Red Sea, these routes started out from the port of Aden in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and reached the southern coast of India2. The fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the expansion of Islam in the strategic areas controlling the key trading stations on the way to the Levant subsequently hampered the sea-borne exchanges between the Mediterranean and Asia.

Over the following centuries the route taken, overland or by sea, varied according to the political climate. From the mid-13th century a hundred years of stability under the Mongol hegemony stretching from Asia to Europe ensured security and saw the establishment of the great Eurasian caravan routes. The distribution of coral began to take these routes, leaving traces of its passage in all the countries involved in this great commercial network. We can recognise a bright red itinerary of coral overlying the map of trade that was gradually being extended.
*The peoples of Arabia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tibet, Mongolia and India were all captivated by its allure: its blood-red colour, enigmatic essence, indecipherable origin and durability. The history of its itinerary saw the flowering and withering of great civilizations. Prosperous cities declined, peoples and religions made their appearance on the stage of history, old routes and caravanserais disappeared in the sand, but the red allure of coral found its way into the symbolism of all the cultures, taking on new metaphors connected with the various religions and local customs. It began to feature in local folk costume: in Mongolia in the impressive head-pieces of bridal costumes to ward off evil3; in Tibet in the ritual masks incarnating the forces of good4; in India in the amulets protecting the owner against misfortune of all kinds5; in Uzbekistan in the jewelry worn by brides and mothers to ensure fertility6; in the Yemen in Moslem rosaries and symbolic male attire7. For all these peoples it possessed apotropaic powers, as well as being ornamental and proclaiming ethnic identity.

While for the peoples of Eurasia the seduction of coral has ancient roots, it is a recent phenomenon for the native North Americans, a sort of transplant from the ancient Mediterranean civilization in this new continent. In fact Corallium Rubrum, the coral gathered in the Mediterranean, was introduced to the New World by the Spaniards, along with many other products unknown to the native populations such as sheep and horses8, wheat, and also new production techniques such as metal working. This is not to say that the local peoples did not wear jewellery, or that they had no tradition of using materials found in the sea in its production, including other varieties of coral and madrepore. But we are getting ahead of ourselves: this is where our story begins.

1 The zoological nature of coral reefs remained a much-debated scientific enigma until the 17th century, when a Marseilles physician, Peyssonel, showed that the scarlet structures were made up of the secretions of colonies of small polyps.

2See Del Mare C., Vitale M., Il Corallo nel gioiello etnico indiano, Electa Napoli, 1999

3See Zolla E., Del Mare C., Il Corallo nella gioielleria etnica della Mongolia, Electa Napoli, 1997

4Op. cit., pp. 9-17

5See Del Mare C., Vidale M., Il corallo nel gioiello etnico indiano, Electa Napoli, 1999

6See Del Mare C, Vitale M., Il Corallo nell’ornamento dell’Asia islamica dalla Turkia all’Uzbekistan, Electa Napoli, 2001

7See Del Mare C., De Maigret A., Il corallo negli ornamenti tradizionali e nel costume dello Yemen, Electa Napoli, 2003

8Strange as it may seem, until the arrival of the Spaniards there were no horses in the American continent. The animals they imported were robust, working horses of Iberian, Berber and Arabic stock, as well as ponies from Northern Spain. Many animals failed to survive the voyage, but those that did bred prolifically. The genetic pool was increased thanks to the thoroughbreds brought over by European colonisers down the centuries. In many parts of America one still comes across herds of wild horses called Mustangs, the progenitors of all the horses that have been bred in the New World.

The Anthropological Context Of The American Southwest

Two major ethnic subgroups can be identified in the indigenous culture of the Southwest. The Pueblos are the region’s autochthonous population, directly descended from the Anasazi9. They include 25 distinct groups (which today number about 45,000 individuals), each with a specific cultural identity, rituals and customs, but a common social structure and the same subsistence farming activity. Their name derives from the term which the first Spanish explorers gave the indigenous populations on their arrival in the territories of the Rio Grande, in what is now New Mexico, at the beginning of the 16th century. The natives lived in villages made up of low houses with flat terrace roofs, built from earth mixed with straw around a central square or plaza. For the Spaniards these settlements bore a surprising resemblance to the villages in their own countryside known as the pueblo, and the term came to be used as the generic name for the indigenous inhabitants, the “Pueblo Indians”, where the misnomer of “Indian” conserves the case of mistaken identity originally made by Columbus. Still today many of the groups of native Americans retain the name given to them by the Spanish missionaries followed by “Pueblo”: Santo Domingo Pueblo, Santa Ildefonso Pueblo, Isleta Pueblo, and so on.

Linguistically the various Pueblo groups reflect their different origins. Essentially three different idioms are spoken: Tanoan10, Keresan11 and Zuni, languages which are not interrelated12 . The Hopis who speak Uto-Aztecan13, identified in some ethnographic classifications as Pueblos, consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group. The Hopi, Zuni, Kerez and Jemez Pueblos all have a social organization based on an exogamic matrilineal clan14, while the Tanoan speaking Pueblos have non-exogamic patrilineal clans15.

The second general classification concerns the two groups of Athapaskan origin, Navajo16and Apache17, which may have migrated from the north or, according to another hypothesis, from the Asiatic continent across the Bering Strait some time in the 13th or 14th century.

The continuous interchange among the Indian ethnic groups brought about radical changes in the means of procuring subsistence. As an example we can cite the Navajo: originally hunters and gatherers, on coming into contact with the sedentary agricultural culture of the Pueblos they acquired some knowledge of farming and adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle. The cultivation of maize, beans and squashes, sheep raising and crafts of weaving on an upright loom and basketry are all activities taken over from Pueblo groups in the relatively recent past.

It is interesting that in their ceremonies the Navajos have retained their characteristic dwellings, the hogan, which may be round or hexagonal in shape and are made out of branches and mud with a central air flue. This construction is surprisingly similar to the yurt, the circular tent of the peoples of Central Asia, and may indicate common Asian origins. The hogan plays a fundamental role in the Navajo social system, symbolising the universe: it represents universal order, being circular like the horizon and domed like the heavens. The door faces east, where the sun rises, and it has four columns oriented according to the equinoxes and solstices, north-east, north-west, south-east, south-west. The hearth is the centre of the universe, and perfumed smoke rising through the central aperture is believed to pass directly to the spirits of the heavens.

This scheme evokes another analogy with the culture of the Himalayas. It is customary among Buddhist peoples to make pictures representing the cosmic order, known as mandalas, and the design of temples, sacred architecture and reliquaries, such as the Tibetan stupa or chorten, is based on analogous maps. Often these symbolic designs, with a central kernel from which the whole pattern is developed, are made using coloured sands, painstakingly laid down one after another in concentric geometrical patterns. Once completed these pictures are destroyed by their maker as a sign of humility and in recognition of the transience of all the things of this world. The Navajos have a similar custom of symbolic painting involving coloured sands, which for centuries have featured in religious rituals, including healing ceremonies. The patterns in sand are created on the ground and, just like in Tibet, are destroyed at the end of the rite. For both cultures, Navajo and Buddhist, these are ritual representations associated with ceremonies designed to re-establish harmony and equilibrium between the individual and the community. And there is one further affinity in the Navajo and Tibetan costumes: the use of coral combined with turquoise in silverware ornaments. Naturally this in itself is not enough to postulate Asian origins for the Navajo Indians, but it does undoubtedly represent one more intriguing coincidence.

Nowadays the territories of the American Southwest are home to more than 230,000 Native Americans18, including about 7000 Hopis, living in Arizona, 12,000 Zunis, in Arizona and New Mexico, 45,000 Pueblos, in the Rio Grande drainage basin of New Mexico, and 173,000 Navajos, the largest group occupying the most extensive Indian reservation straddling Arizona and New Mexico. The current Indian groups constitute only three quarters of the native population which lived here when the Spaniards began their conquest.
9Anasazi is the term used to indicate the ancient Pueblo groups. Although the subject is controversial, it seems that the first archaeological evidence for these cultures goes back to 300 BC.

10The Tanoan idiom comprises the ethnic groups speaking the three languages Towa (Jemez), Tewa (San Ildefonso and Santa Clara) and Tiwa (Taos, Picuris and Isleta).

11The Kerasan language is spoken by the Acoma, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Laguna and Cochiti.

12 Bahti T. and M., Southwestern Indian Tribes, KC Publications, 2003, pp. 6-7; Dutton B. P., American Indians of the Southwest, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1983, pp. 9-62.

13The Uto-Aztecan linguistic group is the largest in Western America, both geographically and in terms of number of speakers, stretching from the territories of the Great Basin to Mexico.

14In exogamic matrilineal clans descent is through the female line and children are obliged to marry outside the kinship group. In the matrilineal system individuals of both sexes are identified with the mother’s clan. In Hopi communities matrilineality determines a division into housing compounds adjacent to the house of the patriarch. The house is an economic unit, and work is shared equally by men and women. Each clan has a presiding fetish which is kept in the “clan house” and cared for by the woman who is considered the clan mother.

15In societies with a patrilineal system it is the father figure which determines internal order, and descent is through the male line, with name, property and lineage being taken from the father. Similarly kinship is identified with the male parent. In the case of Pueblo groups there is no prohibition on marrying within the paternal clan.

16 The term “Navajo”or “Navaho” derives from Navahuu, which in the Tewa language, spoken by some native groups in the Southwest, means “field cultivated in a small watercourse”. In the Navajo language the population refer to themselves with the term Diné (sometimes written Dineh) meaning people.

17“Apache”, like “Navajo”, does not have Athapaskan origins. It appears to derive from the Zuni word Apache, meaning "enemy". The population generally refer to themselves with the term Inde, or Nde, meaning people.

18Data from the United State Census 2000.

Spanish Influence And The Introduction Of Mediterranean Coral Into America

On 23 February 1540 Francisco Vàsques de Coronado set out from Campestola, Mexico, on an expedition that was to have a decisive impact on the life and history of the populations of the American Southwest. The mission of the 600 soldiers and six Franciscan friars was to find the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cibola and to subjugate the local populations and convert them to Catholicism. Although this mission was not achieved, it had such an impact on the native peoples that it brought about profound changes in their way of life and thinking which persisted well beyond the presence of the Spanish in America.

The entrada of the Spaniards in the American territories started on the coast of Mexico and progressed towards the interior of the continent following what came to be known as the Camino Real de tierra adentro. The route made use of the network of roads which the natives had always used in carrying on their exchanges of local products. With the advent of the Europeans this itinerary gradually became a full-blown network of trading and communication between the south and north of the American continent.

As we mentioned above, the Spaniards brought to the New World a series of products and goods which were unknown to the native populations, including sheep, horses, wheat and coral, as well as new crafts and techniques such as metal working. In the accounts of the first Spanish explorers we find frequent mention of the term “coral”. Initially this was taken to mean that the scarlet material was already in use in Mexico and the Southwest prior to the arrival of Columbus. The Franciscan Marcos de Niza, sent by Francisco Vàsques de Coronado to reconnoitre the territory to the north of Sonora19, seems to have been the first to reach what is now New Mexico in about 1539, together with a Moor from North Africa called Estevan20. The friar was hoping to find the riches and marvels recounted by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca concerning the “seven cities of Cibola” 21 , now identified with the sites of the Zuni villages. In his notes we find the first mention of the use of coral among the natives: “… they wore many coral beads found in the Southern Seas and many turquoise beads they had received from the north”22.

Is it not rather strange that men with much weightier matters on their mind should pay attention to the presence of coral? The fact is that in 16th century Europe this material was highly prized. The western rim of the Mediterranean basin and North Africa, where Estevan came from, were the centre for coral fishing and trade, and throughout the 17th century the precious commodity was at the heart of rivalry and alliances between European powers based on its exploitation23. In 1581 another Spaniard, Herman Gallegos, had this to say concerning the expedition led by Rodriguez Chamuscado in New Mexico against the Jumano Indians of the Rio Grande: “…some of the Indians who approached us wore white and coloured coral of a poor quality attached to their noses … when we asked where it came from, they indicated that it came from the sea”24.

We find another mention of the presence of coral among the Zunis in the memoirs of Governatore Juan de Oñate, who was charged by Federico II of Spain with colonising the territories opened up by Francisco Vàsquez de Coronado in 1540. Describing his journey from the Rio Grande to the Rio Colorado in about 1604, Oñate wrote “ … the Yuma Indians …are the ones who bring coral from the sea, calling it “quacame”, …given the considerable distance from the coast they do not have much of it … in the province of the Zunis there is more, and it is bartered. The Zunis say that the Indians of the Valle Señora come and sell it, and they are no more than six days’ march away”25. This observation, like the previous ones, not only records the use of coral but suggests that trading went on between the populations living in the territories of the Rio Grande, who had no access to the sea, and those living along the Gulf of California over a thousand kilometres away.

Nonetheless we have to regard the references to “coral” in 16th and 17th century Spanish accounts with diffidence, for the term is clearly used inappropriately. Corallium Rubrum has never been found in the ornaments found in archaeological sites predating the arrival of Columbus26. In fact this coral species is typical of the Mediterranean and does not grow off the western coast of Mexico nor indeed in the Gulf of California. Thus it seems likely that when the Spaniards spoke of “coral” they meant a material deriving from seashells in different hues of red27 . We know that on the arrival of the Spanish the Pueblo populations wore a large number of ornaments featuring orangey-red discs and beads, but these cannot have been made of red Mediterranean coral. They were almost certainly beads made from shells like the spiny oyster, a bivalve mollusc which is still exploited in Pueblo jewelry (fig. D70065) and is readily available from the Gulf of California down into Ecuador28.

An account by Father Jacopo Sedelmayer of 1746 seems to confirm this hypothesis concerning the true nature of the “coral” used by the Yumas, who adorned themselves “with necklaces of seashells woven together with other coloured shells looking like coral that they fashion and pierce”29.

But if red coral was not available along the coast of central-northern America, how did it become part of native ornaments, as is unquestionably documented by items of jewelry attested by literary and photographic records from the 18th century to the present? Nonetheless we have to regard the references to “coral” in 16th and 17th century Spanish accounts with diffidence, for the term is clearly used inappropriately. Corallium Rubrum has never been found in the ornaments found in archaeological sites predating the arrival of Columbus30. In fact this coral species is typical of the Mediterranean and does not grow off the western coast of Mexico nor indeed in the Gulf of California. Thus it seems likely that when the Spaniards spoke of “coral” they meant a material deriving from seashells in different hues of red31. We know that on the arrival of the Spanish the Pueblo populations wore a large number of ornaments featuring orangey-red discs and beads, but these cannot have been made of red Mediterranean coral. They were almost certainly beads made from shells like the spiny oyster, a bivalve mollusc which is still exploited in Pueblo jewelry (fig. D70065) and is readily available from the Gulf of California down into Ecuador32.

An account by Father Jacopo Sedelmayer of 1746 seems to confirm this hypothesis concerning the true nature of the “coral” used by the Yumas, who adorned themselves “with necklaces of seashells woven together with other coloured shells looking like coral that they fashion and pierce”33. But if red coral was not available along the coast of central-northern America, how did it become part of native ornaments, as is unquestionably documented by items of jewelry attested by literary and photographic records from the 18th century to the present? Gradually Catholic missions were set up along the route of the Camino Real, and in time these became centres of trade and exchange. They also began to host workshops for local handicrafts, which boosted the growth of the churches and communities. Over several decades Indians poured into the missions, which later turned into the famous trading posts where people could congregate and exchange products coming from the north and south of the country.

The missions were supplied with objects of little or no monetary value, such as the crucifixes and medals worn by the missionary friars, brought by the Spaniards as gifts to bestow on acquiescent local chieftains and as a way of entering into relations with new tribes34. There were also objects of more superior craftsmanship such as holy images, altar furnishings and rosaries comprising glass, crystal, jade and coral beads35. All these objects connected with the Catholic cult began to influence the style of ornaments used by the natives. It is quite plausible that the coral brought to America in the form of rosary beads began to be inserted into the ornaments featuring turquoise and seashells in the local tradition.

Evidence bearing this out came from an archaeological expedition in 1975 in the Missions of San Bernardo and San Juan Bautista, on the borders of Mexico and Texas. Various types of ornamental material were found, including thirteen salmon pink coral beads in globular or barrel shapes36. Similar beads were also found on the site of missions in Texas (Rosario Mission in Goliad County) and California (San Jose Mission)37. From the accounts left by the missionaries it seems likely that the beads came from rosaries given to the Indians in the Spanish period38. The beads found in the Rosario Mission can be dated to 1750 – 1780, while those found in California date from some ten years earlier.
While we can only make approximate estimates as to when the natives first handled Corallium Rubrum, it is certain that by the first decades of the 19th century red coral was being imported and used in the Southwest. This is recorded in reports by American officers stationed in New Mexico. In his Three years among the Indians and Mexicans General Thomas S. James had this to say about the San Felipe Pueblos, observed at Santa Fe during a procession celebrating Mexican independence on 6 February 1822: “They were all tastefully dressed in cotton cloth of their own weaving and decorated with coral beads of a brilliant red color. Many wore rich pearl necklaces and jewelry of great value…the red coral was worth one hundred dollars a pound.”39.

Up until the middle of the 19th century we do not know exactly where the Mediterranean coral imported into America came from. It may have been sent from Spain or Italy, having been gathered on the coasts of the central-western Mediterranean40. To date we have no documents concerning direct trade with Italy in the first decades of the 19th century, but the use of coral among the Pueblo undoubtedly anticipated the reality of the importation of coral into America from Italy from the second half of the 19th century to the present, which we shall describe below.

As we have seen, in the 17th century the goods imported into the Southwestern territories included not only rosaries in coral but also silver, bronze and copper medallions, from both the Christian and Moorish traditions in Spain. These elements became part of local ornamentation, taking on a symbolism that had more to do with the local, pre-conquest beliefs than their Christian origins. Typical examples are the Lorraine cross, with its two horizontal bars (figs. D60522, D60523) and the pomegranate (D60524). The former was adopted by the Pueblos, Hopis and Navajos because it recalled the form of the dragonfly, a significant element in their culture because it heralded the period when the maize ripened and of the spring rains, bringers of life. Images of this insect are common in cave paintings and in the decoration of pre-Columbian ceramic ware. For the natives the cross was first and foremost an ornament; they wore it to placate the missionary zeal of the friars, while continuing, often in secret, to honour the beliefs they had held for centuries. We cannot, however, simply affirm that as time went on Indians never viewed the cross in the way the Spaniards intended. Following their conversion, some of the Pueblos wore jewels serving as rosaries made of coral and metal.

The pomegranate was another symbol imported by the Spaniards. They in turn had acquired it from the tradition of the Andalusian Moors, who considered it one of the gifts of Allah symbolising fertility and abundance. After all, the capital of the Andalusian kingdom bore the auspicious name Granada, which is Spanish for “pomegranate”. This shape is still very popular in the jewelry of the Navajos and Zunis. In the “squash blossom” necklaces (figs. D60349, D60360, D60352) it is combined with the upturned crescent, naja, another supreme Islamic symbol which the Native Americans may first have seen adorning the reins of Moorish horses41. All these various symbolic elements, like coral itself, reveal the influence of Spanish and Mediterranean traditions on the native cultures during some three centuries of coexistence.

19Sonora is a state in Northern Mexico, on the borders of Arizona and New Mexico.

20Estevan, also known as “Estevanico” and “black Stephen”, was a Berber born in Azamour, south of Casablanca. Sold in slavery to a Spanish nobleman, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, in 1520, he set sail for the Antilles as part of an expedition to conquer Florida. Following a shipwreck only Estevan, Carranza, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and one other voyager survived. They eventually came across groups of Spanish settlers in Mexico. In 1539 during the expedition with the friar Marco de Niza in search of the “seven cities of Cibola” ordered by Coronado, Estevan was killed by the Zunis. Another version of his disappearance maintains that he fled to live with the Pimas, who worshipped him for his healing skills.

21The Journey of Alvarez Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, translated by Bandalier Fanny, New York, 1905

22Op. cit., p. 156

23See Del Mare C., Russo F., 2005, pp. 11-19

24Gallegos H., Relation, translated by Hammond and Rey, Santa Fe, 1927, p.19

25/p> Hodge F.W., Coral Among Early Southwest Indians, “Masterkey”, vol. XVII, No. 3, May, 1943, p.101; Zarate Salmeron in Bolton, Exploration in the Southwest, New York, 1916, pp.278-79

26Numerous archaeological digs on the sites of San Juan, Pueblo Bonito, Hawikuh and other areas in the Southwest have demonstrated the absence of red Mediterranean coral, Corallium Rubrum, in the period preceding Columbus. See Hodge F.W., 1943, pp.99-102; Woodward A., Notes on Coral in Southwest, “Masterkey”, vol. XXI, No. 1, Jannuary, 1947, pp. 25-26; Tanner, C. Lee. , Coral among Southwestern Indians in “Essay in Anthropology in Honor of Byron Cimmings”, Tucston – Santa Fe, 1950, pp.117-132.

27There is a consensus of opinion that commercial red coral did not grow in the Gulf of California, but only such varieties as sea fan, Muricea Californica, “cup-shaped coral”, Paracyathus Stearnsii, and Scleractinia, white or off-white in colour and porous, which cannot be used for ornaments.

28Tanner, C. Lee, 1950, p.118

29Sedelmayr’s Relatión of 1748, translated and published by Donald L. Ives, Bur. Of Amer. Ethnol., “Anthropologic Papers”, No. 9, Washington, 1939, p.109

30Numerous archaeological digs on the sites of San Juan, Pueblo Bonito, Hawikuh and other areas in the Southwest have demonstrated the absence of red Mediterranean coral, Corallium Rubrum, in the period preceding Columbus. See Hodge F.W., 1943, pp.99-102; Woodward A., Notes on Coral in Southwest, “Masterkey”, vol. XXI, No. 1, Jannuary, 1947, pp. 25-26; Tanner, C. Lee. , Coral among Southwestern Indians in “Essay in Anthropology in Honor of Byron Cimmings”, Tucston – Santa Fe, 1950, pp.117-132.

31There is a consensus of opinion that commercial red coral did not grow in the Gulf of California, but only such varieties as sea fan, Muricea Californica, “cup-shaped coral”, Paracyathus Stearnsii, and Scleractinia, white or off-white in colour and porous, which cannot be used for ornaments.

32Tanner, C. Lee, 1950, p.118

33Sedelmayr’s Relatión of 1748, translated and published by Donald L. Ives, Bur. Of Amer. Ethnol., “Anthropologic Papers”, No. 9, Washington, 1939, p.109

34Bird A., Heart of the Dragonfly: Historical Development of the Cross Necklaces for Pueblo and Navajo Peoples, Albuquerqe, Avanyu Publishing, 1992, p.1

35n the 17th - 19th century in Christian Europe it was customary to make rosary “paternosters” in red coral symbolising the passion and blood of Christ

36Harris R. K., Harris I. M., Hester T.R., A Study of Glass Beads, Coral Beads, and Bead Spacers from San Juan Bautista and San Bernardo Missions, Guerrero, Coahuila, Mexico, in “Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society”, Volume 70/1999, p. 390

37Harris R. K., Harris I. M., Glass Beads.In Mission Rosario Archeological Investigation 1973, Archeological Report 14, Pt.1, Texas Park and Wildlife Department, Austin. 1974, p. 71

38Harris R. K., Harris I. M., Hester T.R., 1999, pp. 392-393

39James T.S., Three Years Among the Indian and Mexicans, Watterloo, 1846, reprinted Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, 1916, p. 143

40See Del Mare C., Russo F., 2005, pp. 11-19; Liverino B., Il corallo dalle origini ai nostri giorni, Ed. Arte Tipografica, Napoli, 1998, pp. 233-235

41Tisdale S., Fine Indian Jewelry of the Southwest, Santa Fe, 2006, p. 60

The Onset Of The Native Indian Tradition

One specific event in 1864 marked the beginning of what was to become the prized American Indian art of jewelry making. More than 8000 Navajos were settled by the United States army in a reservation created at Fort Sumner, near Bosque Redondo in the furthest eastern reaches of New Mexico. In their captivity the Navajos came into contact with Mexican plateros (silversmiths), who had assimilated the custom and techniques of working silver from the Spaniards. Prior to 1800 the natives produced their jewelry using such natural materials as turquoise and seashells. The Navajos were the first tribe in the Southwest to learn the techniques of metal working. Trading between the Navajos and the tribes living in the Plains, as well as with the Mexicans, led to the gradual spread of these techniques.

The first Navajo silversmith on record was Atsidi Sani (“old craftsman”) who appears to have begun working silver in the years 1853 - 185842. Born in 1830, Atsidi was an artist, spiritual guide, medicine man and Navajo leader (he was one of the six chiefs who signed the treaty sanctioning the return of the Diné people to their land following the period of captivity). He too was imprisoned at Fort Sumner, where he learnt from the Mexicans and showed great skill in working silver, at first producing bridles and other horse tack, and then knives, concha belts and bracelets. Four of his numerous sons learnt the craft and gained a living as accomplished jewellers towards the end of the century. Grey Moustache, a grandson of Atsidi Sani and himself a Navajo silversmith, recalls how ornaments were bartered between tribes: “The Hopis and Zunis would exchange turquoise and silver beads with the Navajos. I made ketoh43 for the Zunis, and would exchange one for a necklace of seashell beads. I went to the Zuni village several times a year to sell my silver”44. The first jewelry produced by the natives used copper, bronze and iron, but not silver, which was too costly. These artefacts, as we have seen, showed Spanish and Mexican influence in the elaborate relief designs on horse tack, simply made using a metal punch directly on the silver. Other decorations and forms owed much to the groups of the Great Plains, such as the Utes, Comanches and Sioux, who maintained constant trading links with the Indians in the Southwest. The introduction of silver coincided with a period of crucial social change in the lives of the Navajos, who from being warriors and horse breeders found themselves from 1868 bound to reside in a dedicated reservation, following the period of captivity at Bosque Redondo. Trading posts were soon established in the new reserve, favouring the exchange of goods. Silver coins carried by American soldiers were melted down to make jewels, and these became a significant item in the burgeoning Navajo economy, for they could be bartered for other commodities. The Navajos soon began to incorporate features of the reins used by the caballeros, rosaries, Spanish crosses and medals, squash blossom necklaces and concha belts in fashions that combined the imported style with the indigenous character.

The Zunis learnt the techniques of working silver from the Navajos in about 1870. It appears that a Navajo craftsman, Atsidi Chon, taught the procedure to a Zuni called Lanyade45. Silver never gained great popularity, however, amongst the Pueblos of the Rio Grande: the Santo Domingos, for example, preferred to go on producing heishi in turquoise or seashell. Nonetheless, by the end of the nineteenth century there were numerous jewelry makers among the Navajos, Hopis and Zunis. As time went on their output increased, involving more and more Indians, especially following the opening of the railway line which took tourists to Santa Fe in search of jewels for personal use and as collectors’ items, tangible souvenirs of adventurous times in the “Wild West”. The tourist trade favoured lightweight jewels rather than the massive ornaments that the Navajos made for themselves and for the Pueblo groups. In 1899 the Fred Harvey Company, set up to develop tourism in the Southwest, ordered a series of lightweight jewels featuring pre-cut turquoise stones from the mines of Nevada, launching the commercial exploitation of Indian jewelry46. The initiative was so successful that in 1910 a firm in Denver began producing the same jewels with its white workforce.

The extensive network of exchanges which linked the Southwest with the Pacific seaboard, the Midwest and the plains fostered a boom in jewelry making as well as other artefacts. As the trade in skins diminished, replaced by the exchange of silver objects, the Indians began to produce ornaments both for themselves and for the growing tourist trade. Jewelry production became a sign of wealth and prestige for the Navajos. They were the first Indians to combine silver and turquoise, influencing the Zunis and Hopis who went on to develop their own style in this new branch of handicraft

While silver is a recent introduction into the jewellery of the Far West, turquoise with its almost sacred connotation has always been used. Its legendary aura was linked with the colour of the sky, and it was offered up in rituals to bring rain to the arid environment. Turquoise beads were sealed into niches in the walls of the ceremonial chambers of the Pueblo kiva, to highlight their ritual character. Turquoise took on great economic importance when it began to be used as a token in exchanges. Its value was calculated on the basis of the quality of the stone and the quantity of work required to produce an artefact. The Pueblo Indians valued a necklace of turquoise discs, stretching from shoulder to shoulder, as the equivalent of a Navajo horse.

42Tisdale S., 2006, p. 56; Adair J., The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1944, p.4; Woodward A., Navajo Silver: A Brief History of Navajo Silversmithing, Flagstaff, Northland Press, 1971, p. 20; Cirillo D., Southwestern Indian Jewellery, New York, Abbeville Press, 1992, p. 67.

43Wristbands used by archers for protection from the bowstring as the arrow was loosed.

44Adair J., 1944, p.9

45Totems to Turquoise, Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest, exhibition catalogue, American Museum of Natural History, Kari Chalker, General Editor, 2006, p. 86

46Op. cit., p. 87

Exchanges With Italy

In the 19th century the continuous trading between Indian groups and the Europeans who settled in America led to the reintroduction of coral into the indigenous market. Now it was no longer a question of the occasional rosary beads imported by the Spaniards in the 17th century but rather a full-scale operation in which the Italian companies specialising in coral played a leading role. As we have seen, throughout the period in which the Indians lived in contact with the Spaniards they had come to prize the red coral of the Mediterranean, valuing it as highly as other precious stones. In addition to the memoirs of General Thomas James, quoted above, who estimated the value of the coral beads worn by a San Felipe Pueblo as being about one hundred dollars a pound, there are other records showing how the natives prized this particular gem. In 1858 we learn from a report by the Federal troops that a Zuni Indian killed a Navajo woman and took her necklace of red coral worth $200, together with other precious stones particularly prized by the Indians, such as “only the rich” could afford47.

From the middle of the 19th century an important group of European and American businessmen began to import products systematically from Europe, including coral. These dealers played a vital role in the development of the artistic style of the native jewellers. They sought out the best local talents, encouraging them and promoting the sale of their work. For the Navajos in particular, following the segregation, their contribution was crucial in establishing a fruitful relationship with the dealers and also with the other native groups.

The company of S. A. Frost & Son, New York, founded in 1858 and importing products specifically for “Indian Traders”, had close ties with the Genoese “coral manufacturer” Raffaele Costa from the end of the 19th century for several decades. The correspondence between the American importer and Costa is now conserved in the historical archive of the firm Basilio Liverino of Torre del Greco. It was acquired, together with such rarities as samples of coral balls and necklaces from the beginning of the 20th century, by Cavalier Liverino when he purchased the effects of the Genoese firm in the 1960s, an action which can be seen as marking the passage of the tradition of coral working from Genoa to Torre del Greco.

In the copious correspondence we find interesting annotations revealing the preferences of the natives for certain specific types of coral. For example it is stated that the “Indians” prefer coral of a dark red hue. If we compare the figures given by Frost & Son with Costa’s records now conserved in the Museo Liverino, we find that it was primarily beads of the little barrel or “cannetta” type which were imported into America, remarkably akin to the heishi that the Pueblos had been producing for centuries. For example, a letter dated 22 April 1902 reads: “…I hope you will send me dark red coral as I have repeatedly requested: that’s what the Indians want. The pink shades are suitable for trade with the Whites, but the Indians only buy the dark type, so I beg you not to send me any of the necklaces 996, 786, 1013, 1063, 938, 1006 in pink but all in intense rich red …”48.

In July that same year Frost & Son placed an order for 6000 necklaces, 4000 of them mounted, and in 1907 they requested 25000 necklaces in a single order49. And six years later, on 13 May 1913: “I am sorry you sent me on 2/8 3 strings # 3360 @ 80. I do not think I will be able to sell these. They are too light colour for the Indian trade and not the right shade for the White trade”50.

In the Customs Duties for Coral in the United States for the year 1906, sent to Raffaele Costa by the Camera di Commercio ed Arti in Genoa at his specific request, we learn that the import tax applied to coral imported into the USA, “considered as a precious stone of high value used in jewelry”, had been reduced from 50% of the declared value to 10%. In those years there was a “resurgence in the use of jewelry” and it was hoped, also in view of the tax reduction, that it would “prove possible to develop an industry for its manufacture in the United States”. Furthermore, according to Federal statistics “the importing of crafted coral in the years 1904-1905 amounted to about 11,000 dollars, 4000 of which from Italy…and 3000 for raw coral tax free”. The report concluded by stating that coral had increased in popularity and price as a result of the Customs’ decision to include it in the class of precious stones51.

There were occasions, however, in which coral proved to be over-priced. At the beginning of the 20th century, in order to meet the demand for cheap beads, the Indian Traders of Gallup, in New Mexico, began to import coral coloured glass beads from Czechoslovakia52 as a substitute for the costly Mediterranean gem.

Frost was not the only dealer in the old West to stimulate the creativity of the natives by importing coral from Italy. C G. Wallace too fostered the development of this handicraft and had a considerable influence on the production of jewels. Born in 1898 in North Carolina, Wallace fell under the spell of the West and frontier culture at an early age. He was sent to the Zuni village in 1918 as a clerk in a trading company, and in 1927 acquired his first trading post53. He championed the use of innovative techniques such as intarsio channel work and the use of coral in mosaic among the Zuni and Navajo craftsmen resident at Zuni, promoting collaboration between the two groups. He also encouraged them to use images taken from ethnographic and archaeological iconography (rain birds, rainbow gods and so on), thereby fostering the revival of native traditions. During the 1930s Depression Wallace created an economic holding for numerous artists and acquired a large number of the natives’ products, beginning to collect works of outstanding ethnographic value and transforming the creations of the Zunis from a regional into a national phenomenon. His commitment undoubtedly helped to increase the number of craftsmen from the pitiful nine on his arrival at Zuni to a thousand in a population which numbered 9000 in the 1950s, including jewellers, potters and fetish sculptors. Today half the Zuni population makes an income deriving from jewellrey production.

It was Wallace who started to import coral directly from Italy for the Indians, without the mediation of Frost & Son in New York. He became the largest single importer of coral for the natives in the Southwest. Another merchant, one Jim Turpen, whose father had been a friend of Wallace, has recalled that Wallace possessed the best quality and largest coral of the region54. A letter dated 27 February 1937 sent by Wallace to the firm of Costa in Genoa confirms an order for four coral necklaces for a combined value of 48 dollars, specifying that he wants necklaces containing only large beads, “as large as the largest in the necklaces ordered”55. In further correspondence dated 13 January 1940 Wallace asked the prices for coral necklaces, which in his reply Costa quotes as 14 dollars each, a considerable sum for that period. In the late 40s and 50s Wallace and his nephew Robert Watkins encouraged the Zuni jewellers to make more use of polished coral branches set with large gemstones. Two famous Zuni jewellers, Dan Simplicio and Leekya Deyuse, acted on this suggestion and introduced coral branches into their creations (figs D60362, D70061, D70062). Another craftsman, Leo Poblano, invented a method for sealing the excessively porous lower quality material using coral powder56.

Coral rapidly became an important resource in the economy of the Navajos and Zunis. In the 1940s it featured in exchanges for horses, cows, and sheep, and also as a pawn pledge, like silver and other precious materials, as well as in heirlooms passed down from one generation to the next. In moments of economic hardship, coral was exchanged by the artists with the gemstones that were acquired by private collectors, such as Wallace, or sold in the trading posts57 which in mid-century became the centres for trade in coral. There are records of a Navajo woman who possessed a precious necklace comprising eighteen strings of best quality red coral beads, purchased in part at the trading post of Shiprock and at another one in Arizona58. Chee Dodge, the first spokesperson of the Navajo Tribal Council, who died in 1947, owned a particularly long and striking necklace made up of coral beads of an intense red59.

47Woodward A., 1938, p. 16; Tanner C. Lee, 1950, p. 126

48Archivio Storico Museo Liverino, “Ditta Raffaele Costa” correspondence, 1902

49Liverino B., Il corallo dalle origini ai nostri giorni, Ed. Arte Tipografica, Napoli, 1998, p. 266

50Archivio Storico Museo Liverino, “Ditta Raffaele Costa” correspondence, 1913

51Archivio Storico Museo Liverino, Letter, Camera di Commercio ed Arti, Genoa, 19 January 1907, n. 4000

52Tanner C. Lee, 1950, p. 126

53Slaney, D., Blue Gems, White Metal, Carvings and Jewelry from the C.G. Wallace Collection, Heard Museum, Phoenix, 1998. pp. 11-13

54Slaney, D., 1998, p.22

55Archivio Storico Museo Liverino, “Ditta Raffaele Costa” correspondence, 1937

56Slaney D., 1998,. p. 23

57Trading posts became not only places for commerce but also meeting places, post offices and banks. The managers learnt the local language and respected the religion, beliefs and taboos of the natives. They were instrumental in the gradual rapprochement beween the world of the natives and that of the “whites”.

58Tanner, C. Lee, 1950, p. 126

59Idem, p. 128

Contemporary Jewelry

Over the last sixty years three artists have been chiefly responsible for innovation in jewellery making in the Southwest: the Navajo Kenneth Begay (1913-1977) and the two Hopis Preston Monongye (1927-1987) and Charles Loloma (1921-1991). Their artistic talent and technical expertise have inspired generations of jewellrey designers among the American Indians.

Kenneth Begay, the father of modern Navajo jewellery, created innovative designs, drawing on Navajo patterns and adding new materials to the traditional ones. He achieved refined and expressive creations featuring turquoise and coral, gold and diamonds. Preston Monongye incorporated images of katsinas in his creations, making his name by perfecting the casting technique using tufa cast60, and drawing on ancient pictographic symbols which he remodelled and enriched.

Charles Loloma, perhaps the most celebrated of the modern jewellers in the Southwest, was born in 1921 into a traditional Hopi family. He learnt the arts of pottery and painting and came to jewellery making in the mid-1950s. He maintained a profound respect for tradition, and was able to unite elements from his Hopi background, such as the technique of intarsia inlay using semiprecious stones, with a modern aesthetic sensibility. His most notable achievement was to turn the imperfections of nature into assets, emphasising the harsh qualities of metal and stone. He would frequently proclaim that “beauty is in all the things that surround us, in the environment, in culture, in ceremonies”.

He passed on his craft to his niece Verma Nequatewa, who started on her apprenticeship while still a girl and worked at his side for two decades. When Loloma closed down his gallery in 1989, Verma opened a studio of her own called Sonwai (“beautiful” in Hopi), making a name for herself in America and worldwide. She was very skilful in blending the Hopi tradition, her uncle’s teachings and her own talent for stone cutting and jewellrey making, creating jewels based on the pure form of her materials including coral, “combining the best ideas with the best materials” (fig. D 60516 A & B).

The true intermediary between the Indian traditions and the Italian creative spirit was Frank Patania. He was born in Messina in 1899 into a family that had been working precious stones for generations. When his family emigrated to New York, he found work aged 19 with the New York jewellers Stern & Company. In 1924 he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Santa Fe for treatment. This trip brought about a drastic change in his life and his vocation. Fascinated by the silverware that the natives produced, Patania began producing some himself and in 1927 opened a shop in the Plaza di Santa Fè, opposite the railway station. Called the Thunderbird Shop, it sold his creations and other local artefacts. The surge in tourism, fuelled by the legends of the American frontiers, proved highly beneficial for his enterprise. Starting from local tradition, in which silver and turquoise predominated, Patania went on to develop a style of his own notable for its refined lines and finish (fig. D 70074) which reflected the taste he had inherited from Italian culture and the floral patterns typical of art deco. The balanced designs were enhanced by the use of precious Mediterranean coral which he chose with meticulous care on his trips to Italy during the fifties. His creations are now prized and conserved in numerous museums and American collections.

During the Great Depression and after World War II the widespread financial hardship meant that precious materials had to be replaced by celluloid obtained from old batteries and records and other objects in everyday use. This was the origin of the so-called “battery-backed jewellery” in which the traditional inlay technique was preserved but using cheap, easily available and recycled materials to produce the mosaic (fig. D70073).

During the first half of last century the jewels produced by the Zunis became steadily more elaborate, making use of composite materials as well as silver and turquoise. Now the jewellery making trade, which provides an income for half of the entire Zuni population, features above all turquoise and coral, inserted in small slender mounts, known as “needlepoint technique”61 , (figs. D60349, D60352, D60358, D60356,) or in mosaic work with mother of pearl, turquoise, coral and jet (figs. D60351, D60348, D60357, D60359, D70087, D60521), designs which are extremely elaborate and highly prized by collectors the world over.

Another technique which is typical of Zuni output is the intarsio channel work, developed in the years 1930-40 with the support of C. G. Wallace. This involves creating a series of metal compartments into which semi-precious stones have to be painstakingly inserted. The mosaic design is defined by lots of contiguous sections bounded by a thin thread of silver. It recalls the cloisonné technique, with stone tesserae instead of enamel (figs. D60347, D60355, D70087, D70044, D70046, D70047, D70078).

The contemporary jewellery of the Southwest is characterised by daring colour schemes, angular geometric patterns and the use of silver, turquoise and coral. This simple combination actually unites two traditions of ornaments: that of the Pueblos, who since time immemorial have been accomplished lapidaries, and that of the Navajos, skilful silversmiths who, as we have seen, from the end of the 19th century became the first to cultivate and disseminate this art among other Indian groups. Nowadays the jewels of the Navajos, Zunis and Hopis are known throughout the world, covering an enormous range of typologies, made to meet specific requisites and also for the tourist and international markets. The productions combine very similar forms and styles, and it is not always possible to distinguish whether an item was made by a Navajo, Zuni or Hopi craftsman. Nowadays many Navajos can be seen wearing jewels produced by the Zunis. Some typologies of Zuni creations cater for the Navajo taste for large ornaments with abundant inset precious stones. The contrast between the blue of turquoise and the bright red of coral is particularly striking. The quality of coral preferred by the Navajos is intense and homogeneous in colour, as seen in some of the items made by Zuni craftsmen (figs. D60360, D70092).

Among the Pueblos the Santo Domingoans have always been famous lapidaries and skilful grinders of turquoise stones and seashells. They were the creators of the heishi (“seashell” in the Keresan idiom), which traditionally referred to necklaces made of shell pearls, while nowadays it indicates small discs or cylinders made by hand from various materials. To produce the minuscule beads the raw material (seashells, stones or coral) must be divided up into tiny square chunks of varying thickness, with a hole pierced through the middle. They are then strung together and shaped and polished on a grindstone. During this process between 60% and 70% of the raw material is eliminated. The necklaces which reproduce the traditional Pueblo typology often conserve a central pendant made of shell or jet with turquoise and coral intarsia work (fig. D70065).

60The technique of tufa cast consisted in creating a hollow in the surface of a block of the volcanic stone and pouring the metal into it. This gave the metal a characteristic mottled texture.

61The “needlepoint” technique is a special feature of Zuni production consisting in inserting wafer thin stones of the same dimensions close together in a specific mount. During the process about 2/3 of the gemstone was wasted.

Jewels: Ornaments Or Symbols?

In all ages and latitudes ornaments have invariably possessed more than a purely decorative value. The ornaments pertaining to ethnic groups reflect wearers’ personal and collective identity. They embody beliefs linked with magic, the supernatural and also the world of nature. They proclaim status and social roles. In rites and ceremonies they contribute to investing an individual with special powers and attributes. Ornaments assimilate people, but they also distinguish them.

The natives exhibit their jewels above all during ritual ceremonies and festivities. All the rites and dances performed on these occasions have specific objectives: to re-establish and uphold harmony and well-being in the group, ensure the supply of food and guarantee survival. Even today the dances have an important role to play in maintaining equilibrium in the universe of the Indians, where all the supernatural forces are interrelated and must be propitiated and induced to influence the destinies of human beings.

The rituals of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest associated with subsistence, the crop cycle, and above all the cultivation of maize, are the supreme moment of aggregation in the community, ensuring the preservation of communal traditions. Music and dancing become a collective prayer for rain or expression of gratitude for bounty received. Group unity and participation are at the roots of harmony and beauty. The Hopis have a specific term, namitnangw, meaning: “all our hearts work together in unity”62. Before each dance or ceremony, the Hopis gather in the kiva to meditate, smoke and pray, fostering that unity of heart and mind which is indispensable for success.

In the dances every aspect has its significance: colours correspond to the elements of the universe (the turquoise of the sky, yellow pollen, green vegetation, red lifeblood), as do the materials (the feathers of the Ara Macaw, featuring all the colours in the rainbow, bringer of water and fertility, and turquoise, the holy stone endowed with vitality), clothes and masks which operate a change in identity (as in the bird man, a messenger linking earth and the heavenly deities), and ornaments characterising the individual as part of the group (squash blossom necklaces in silver, turquoise and coral being among the most common). Once painted and decked out in special costumes, dancers are turned into sacred beings who can fulfil a specific ritual role.

Legends, masks, concepts of space and time, numbers and colours are all to be found in the design of costumes. These aspects are part and parcel of the system of beliefs of the Native Americans. Together they form an elaborate system of correspondences which ensure equilibrium in the world of the Pueblos, Hopis, Navajos and Apaches. All these groups have oral traditions and ceremonials in common. The White Seashell Woman of the Navajos is associated, for example, with the Hard Substance Woman of the Hopis, who lives where the Colorado River flows into the Ocean, presiding over the precious seashells, coral and turquoise63.

Beauty and prayer are linked with every aspect of Navajo life. In fact we can sum up Navajo culture in the term hozho: “beauty, equilibrium, harmony”64. The creation, conservation and restoration of hozho are the prime concern for every Navajo. As well as being the immanent manifestation of beauty, hozho is that universal harmony to which all must aspire. It is the ethical attitude which pervades every action of the Navajos.

The phenomena and manifestations of the world of the natives have a dual aspect, both visible and invisible. The interior quality, which is invisible, brings each form into being and enhances its exterior beauty. The concept known as “inner gems”, common to some contemporary Indian designers including Charles Loloma, draws on the ethical principle that “even though everything we possess is not put on display, the knowledge of the concealed beauty makes us better”. The jewel becomes a symbol of the internal beauty inherent in each person, which can at times be concealed by appearances (fig. D70089).
The element of water has influenced both the ceremonies and the craftwork produced in the American Southwest for centuries. The lives of the Pueblo Indians depend on the arrival of rain to ensure the crops and hence survival. Thus all the symbols and materials connected with water take on sacred or ritual connotations. The supernatural forces associated with water, clouds and rain are personified, for the Hopi and Zuni, in the katsina and for the Navajos in the yei. They are the spiritual essences of the elements and of ancestors, and act as messengers between men and the deities, playing a fundamental part in the elaborate ceremonies. In the ritual dances they are represented by the masks of the dancers who go into the village and distribute gifts and rain to the inhabitants and the neighbourhood. Tales concerning the origins of a tribe always feature the katsina and certain creatures such as the dragonfly, and are used to teach children the history of the community. The same shapes are turned into objects and jewels which attract the supernatural and ward off danger and difficulties.

As we mentioned above, when the Spaniards arrived in the Southwest with their crosses the Indian populations took quite naturally to this symbol because it was their custom to wear a similar decorative element, albeit endowed with quite different meanings. The natives used the “cross” both in ceremonial objects and for functional purposes connected with their world, imbued with the cult of nature. The crosses from the prehistoric period can be interpreted as a very simplified, geometric representation of the stars and the sun, the bodies that bring light to the world. By extending the vertical line and adding a second horizontal bar this outline can look like a dragonfly, whose arrival marks the onset of the spring rains which enables the maize to ripen and is thus endowed with life-giving powers. The image of the dragonfly, together with frogs and tadpoles, lizards, snakes and butterflies - all creatures alluding to survival in desert environments - is found in jewels and objects used in rituals associated with rain and the fertility of the earth.

The squash blossom necklaces are very popular with the Navajos and Zunis, being worn in various ceremonies concerning the cycle of crop cultivation. They feature a crescent or naja in the centre, associated with a varying number of pomegranate buds (figs. D60349, D60352, D60360, D70085). The Navajos adapted the Hispanic-Moorish symbolism of the naja from horses’ reins and later as pendants for necklaces. In time the naja took on an existence of its own, independent of the original model, and acquired semiprecious stones and other forms of embellishment. The association with the dances soliciting fertility for the crops recalls its original symbolism, common to many primitive cultures, with the crescent representing naturalistic liturgies. However the Indians do not seem to have attributed a symbolic significance to this image, even though it was held in the greatest regard.

The Navajos used the term yo ne maze disya gi (literally “seed coming into leaf”) to indicate the squash blossom necklaces, rather than a name which directly evokes the pomegranate. Quite apart from its possible symbolic meanings, the necklace attests the contacts between the natives and the Spaniards, and also between the Navajos, who were the first to use this form, and the Pueblos, the Zunis in particular, who adopted it with the addition of turquoise.
Another shape which commonly featured in old jewelry and recurs in contemporary output is the bird in flight, wings spread in the shape of a cross. Birds are often represented because they are seen as messengers between men and the heavenly deities. The “god with knife wings”, A-tchi-a la-to-pa (a Zuni term indicating “protective forces”) which impersonates man and bird together, and also the “rainbow god”, are figures associated with the supernatural forces of the sky, clouds and rain. Like all the symbols connected with water, it had a ritual and propitiatory significance whenever it featured in objects and jewels (figs. D60359, D70046, D70047). The spirits of the rains, or “cloud people”, are represented in various ways in the “magic rain symbolism” employed to favour the crops. One of these is the “plumed serpent” which lives in the clouds and whose tongue is lightning. The serpent is also linked to earth and water, running like water and emerging from the earth where it lies hidden, thus incarnating the potent dualism of forces in the world.

The kokopelli is another emblematic figure in the culture of the Pueblo Indians in Arizona and New Mexico, dating back to the 14th century. He seems to have arrived from Mexico, and probably represented the early traders who brought shells and feathers, particularly the red feathers of the Ara Macaw, from Mexico to the Puebloan areas65. In the Hopi culture he is a grotesque flute player, with a phallic shaped coxcomb, and carries a seed bag. Some see in this bag a disfiguring hump which makes the character ridiculous. The figure is often associated with fertility, symbolising abundance and general good fortune. His ridiculous nature and the phallic allusions recall the wall-paintings in Roman Pompeii, where the grotesque and obscene aspect of the priapic figures was designed to ward off envy and the evil eye. In Imperial Rome the fascinum was synonymous with an amulet: the erect phallus captivated attention, and was worn inside a bulla in order to attract and exorcise the evil eye, protecting the wearer. By annulling spells the fascinum represented the power of belief over the human condition. In classical antiquity, as indeed perhaps among the American Indians today, the preservation of human life was the prime function of the ornament worn as an amulet.

The fetishes are powerful spirits of the rocks, represented in various animal or human forms which are believed to have been petrified by the breath of the spirit of the place. They act as mediators between the supernatural and the human, and bestow on their owner the force of the animal in question. This is why they must be treated with due respect, according to precise rituals. They perform specific functions in the ceremonies, and they are adorned with significant ornaments. They often include fragments of coral and turquoise (figs. D60511, D60512, D60513). It is impossible to establish how far the use of these forms dates back. Nonetheless the way in which the Pueblo and Navajo Indians have continued to employ them has reinforced the significance of many examples going all the way back to prehistoric times.

62Totem e Turquoise, 2006, p. 92

63Dubin L. S., 19999, p. 482

64 dem

65Young J.V., Kokopelli, Filter Press, Palmer Lake, 1990, pp. 4-20; Dubin L.S., 1999, p. 507


At the end of this long account it remains difficult to establish precisely what symbolic significance was attributed by the American Indians to coral. This is because more often than not the symbolism of personal objects or materials associated with rituals was not revealed to outsiders. Thus it is difficult for scholars and researchers, ethnologists or cultural anthropologists to establish recondite meanings or document symbolic values pertaining to the various ethnic groups, since these may well have been known only to the shamans or traditional healers. There are accounts such as that of Friar Berard Haile, who wrote in 1946, “there is no trace in Navajo legends of yolici, “red pearls”, as coral is called, because red is generally taboo in their ceremonies”66 . The Navajo shaman Hosteen Klah also maintained that coral does not have any ceremonial significance and is used purely as an ornament67 . Other commentators, however, state that it is a symbol affording protection from bad medicine, envy and jealousy.

We have come to the conclusion that the coral which appears repeatedly in the jewels worn for the most important ceremonies and the ritual dances associated with fertility and harmony between the various ethnic groups is in fact highly prized by the Native Americans, and not just those in the Southwest. Like all the elements coming from water, it is considered a sacred life-giving symbol by the natives living in the semi-arid Southwest, who depend on water for their very survival. This concept still persists among many of the tribes in the region, as we can see in the symbolism associated with water as the source of life: rain, clouds, thunder, frogs, dragon-flies and seashells, all of which are frequently reproduced in the paraphernalia featuring in the traditional rituals.

In the Navajo cosmogony the four subterranean worlds are governed by four precious materials: turquoise, white shell, red stone (yolici) and abalone (known as “sea-ear”, a gastropod mollusc which is a source of the finest mother of pearl). The concept that each direction in the cosmos is associated with a certain colour is common to all the Pueblo populations. The Zunis associate north with yellow, west with blue, south with red and east with white, the zenith with all colours and the nadir with black. Moreover some of the Zuni ceremonial objects feature coral, while some fetishes (figs. D60511, D60512, D60513), katsina and yei are decorated with coral and turquoise (figs. D70042, D70056).

Corallium Rubrum has invariably seduced all the people who have come into contact with this emblematic material over the centuries. As we have seen in the previous itineraries of “The Spread of Coral”, coral has acquired meaningful and symbolic implications in many and disparate cultural contexts, strengthened by the totality of the folk beliefs and the religious ideologies of each country and society. Like any other phenomena concerning the influence of tradition, each product or material belongs to a specific cultural system, is adopted for its own special significance and brings with it potential values that are perceived even by people outside the original culture. So it is with coral, the treasure of our Mediterranean culture, art and economy: having been brought by the Spaniards to the New World, it transferred its potential value and force to the Native Americans. This seductive power stimulated, and continues to stimulate, the use of coral in American jewelry as a material with a strong cultural added value. As Hamilton A. Tyler wrote, when pieces of shell, coral, turquoise and corn pollen are added to ground grain, “all the essentials of life are brought together”68.


68Hamilton A. Tyler, L'alce sacro : i miti della natura degli indiani pueblo, Rusconi, Milano,1990, p. 57

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