Native American Necklaces – What is heishi?

Heishi and other Shell and Stone Necklaces

Heishi means shell and in the past, referred to pieces of shell that have been drilled and hand rolled or ground into bead shapes and strung as necklaces. With the reduced availability of some shell materials, the modern Native American artists also use hand made beads of other natural materials including stones when making heishi necklaces.

Heishi facts and informationHeishi originated with the Santo Domingo and San Felipe Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. That’s why many people refer to this type of jewelry as Santo Domingo jewelry.

Although all of the items we sell in our Native American Jewelry Store are hand made by Navajo, Hopi, Zuni or Rio Grande Pueblo Indian craftsmen and women, there are many inexpensive imitation heishi items for sale elsewhere that use man-made materials and are produced by non-Native Americans. So, like many other things, you get what you pay for. If you want an authentic, traditional heishi necklace, this is the type you should be looking for.

The shells most commonly chosen for heishi include penn shell, olive shells, spiny oysters, mother-of-pearl (MOP), and melon shell. Coral is also used as well as stones such as lapis, turquoise, jet, pipestone, and serpentine.

Heishi facts and informationHeishi beads are made by slicing the shell or stone into uniform strips. Then the pieces are nipped into small squares. Each square then has a hole drilled in it. The squares are strung, each material being strung in a separate group. The strings of squares are smoothed and rounded by grinding and rolling the beads. Once the beads have reached the rough ground round stage, they are ready for sanding. The beads are smoothed and shaped using sandpaper. The string of finished material is washed and dried in the sun. Then they are polished on a leather belt.

Heishi facts and informationNow the artist strings the various heishi beads in a unique design.

Authentic handmade heishi, although smooth and of uniform consistency, will have variations among the beads. There will be a variation in color and thickness or there might be a slight imperfection in the shell or bead. This adds to its unique appearance.

What is stabilized turquoise?

Heishi facts and informationOften in heishi necklaces and other nugget necklaces, the turquoise has been stabilized. This means that a natural turquoise nugget has been treated with a stabilizing agent that closes the pores of the stone so it will not change color or fracture. This allows the artist to use smaller beads for necklaces; they would otherwise fracture if not stabilized. It also means your turquoise jewelry will look just as bright and beautiful years from now as from the day you purchased it.

Natural turquoise, although beautiful, can change color when it comes in contact with body oil, hand lotion, soap or any other fat-based compound. Blue stones tend to become more green.

Although all stones can fracture if treated roughly, natural stones tend to fracture more easily than stabilized stones. When a natural stone is used in a sturdy sterling silver setting, it is protected but when it is used as beads in a necklace, it could be easily chipped. That’s why most heishi and nugget necklaces use stabilized turquoise.

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