The story of American Indian jewelry dates back to a time long before recorded history. It is believed the earliest form of jewelry was made from the tiny shells of marine animals which had holes drilled through them so they could be strung as beaded jewelry. The earliest American Indians, just like the earliest humans everywhere, settled near steady sources of water where shells could easily be gathered from sea shores, river banks, and along creeks, streams, and lakes.
Perhaps the most well known form of American Indian jewelry today is that made from the silver and turquoise of the Southwest, particularly in New Mexico and Arizona. These items are most often fashioned to represent the spirit world and other revered tribal elements. The thunderbird and squash blossom are often depicted in such work.
Handmade beads have played a prominent role in the story of American Indian jewelry. Using raw materials from the natural world, early American jewelers used beads made of wood, bone, ivory, soapstone, and clay. Once the ancient peoples mastered the art of metallurgy, beads made of silver, gold, copper, and other metals were used.
There is strong evidence that American Indian jewelry was traded from tribe to tribe. Jewelry adorned with or made from oyster shells, available only at the seashore, has been found with other artifacts in places far, far away from the oceans.
Jewelry trends, just like other fashion trends, come in cycles and one very hot item in today’s jewelry market is inspired directly from ancient American Indian jewelry. The labret was worn by American Indian peoples of the Pacific Northwest as long as 4,000 years ago. In the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, only males of very high rank wore them.
The word “labret” is derived from the Latin word labrum, which means “lip” and the suffix “-et” means “something worn on.” These ancient tribesmen wore the first lip studs on the American fashion scene.