Skip to Content

Home > Coral > The Coral Story > Jewels: Ornaments Or Symbols?

< Previous | Next >

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

< Previous | Next >

^Back to Top^