Navajo Pearls – Everything You Need to Know About Sterling Silver Native American Beads

Sterling Silver Navajo bead necklaces are an old tradition with Navajo silversmiths. Besides being used alone as necklaces or necklaces with pendants, sterling silver beads are an integral part of squash blossom necklaces.

Dear Paula,

I love the Marie Yazzie beads I just received !

 

Navajo Sterling Silver Stamped Beads by Navajo Marie Yazzie

 

I would like to get another stamped set, this time just a little bit shorter and perhaps lighter weight for summer…but I’m undecided as to whether to get graduated or not…do you remember the other pair I got in January? Between those and the Marie Yazzie beads I just received, I want to add one more set – now which do you recommend?” – Cynthia

Hi Cynthia,

The beads that you just received are nice heavy beads with deep stamping.

The ones you bought in January were plain (not stamped) and great for using with pendants.

Native American Sterling Silver Beads by Navajo Lily Yazzie

Native American Sterling Silver Beads by Navajo Lily Yazzie

So now, after talking with you on the phone, it sounds like you want a set that you can wear with tank tops and V neck tees kind of as a dress down/dress up statement. I can relate !!  Love it !!

To give you the very best advice, please read the entire article below which you have inspired me to write…then look for my answer to your specific question after the end of the article. – Paula

Navajo Pearls

Everything You Need to Know About Sterling Silver Native American Beads

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Sterling Silver Navajo bead necklaces are an old tradition with Navajo silversmiths. Besides being used alone as necklaces or necklaces with pendants, sterling silver beads are an integral part of squash blossom necklaces.

Native American Squash Blossom Necklace

Native American Squash Blossom Necklace

Authentic Native American sterling silver beads are getting more difficult to find as they are very labor intensive to make (you’ll see what I mean after you learn the process below). There are many sterling silver bead necklaces available but if you want Native American handmade, then it helps to know more about them so you know what you are getting.

Bench made Beads vs Hand Made Beads

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Handmade (hand made) beads are entirely hand crafted: cutting, stamping, dapping, drilling, soldering, filing, polishing, stringing is all done by hand. Hand made beads are very labor intensive, therefore much more expensive than bench made beads. Also, when taking the time to make beads by hand, Navajo silversmiths generally use heavy gauge sterling silver, which also adds to the price. Handmade Native American beads are the most cherished and desired by customers. Because each bead is made individually, there might be slight variations from bead to bead.

Handmade Navajo Sterling Silver Beads

Navajo Sterling Silver Benchmade Beads

Navajo Sterling Silver Benchmade Beads

Bench made Beads (also known as Bench Beads) usually refer to beads that are partially manufactured and partially hand made. Usually the silversmith starts with some machine cut pieces, which are then soldered. The seam is usually fairly prominent.

S448-squash-howlite-yazzie-26-11

Note the prominent seams on these bench made beads, part of a squash blossom necklace made of howlite.

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Graduated Beads vs All One Size

Graduated beads are available in lengths from 16” to 28” and usually consist of 5 sizes of beads. There is only one of the largest beads at the center and the others graduate from the center toward the ends. The bead sizes might range from approximately 22 mm (7/8”) in diameter for the large center bead 13 mm (1/2”) at the ends or something similar.

Handmade Sterling Silver Graduated Navajo Beads by Marie Yazzie

Handmade Sterling Silver Graduated Navajo Beads by Marie Yazzie

Beads that are all one size are uniform throughout the necklace and are commonly available in 7 mm to 12 mm diameter – although beads outside that range are also available. When they are about 8-10 mm and round, they really look like “pearls” if you ask me.

Sterling Silver Navajo Pearls by Larry Pinto

Sterling Silver Navajo Pearls by Larry Pinto

Bead Size Equivalent Chart

Bead Shape and Style

Round – The basic shape of a sterling silver bead is round.

Round Sterling Silver Navajo Pearls

Round Sterling Silver Navajo Pearls

Seed – The seed bead is a round bead that has been squashed so it is shorter than it is wide and has a more defined seam, which makes it look something like a seed.

Sterling Silver Navajo Seed Bead

Sterling Silver Navajo Seed Bead

Melon Beads were originally known as the melon seed bead – a unique elongated shape.

Navajo Pearls and Melon Beads by Virginia Tso

Navajo Pearls and Melon Beads by Virginia Tso

Barrel Beads are long, straight, smooth cylinders.

Navajo Sterling Silver Barrel Beads by Susie Lee

Navajo Sterling Silver Barrel Beads by Susie Lee

Plain Beads have a smooth surface (see Round Beads above).

Stamped beads have a stamped pattern. It can be deep and definite or shallow and subtler.

Stamped Beads by Navajo Lily Yazzie

Stamped Beads by Navajo Lily Yazzie

Fluted beads (also called embossed) have a ridged surface pattern.

Fluted Sterling Silver Beads by Calvin Largo, Navajo

Fluted Sterling Silver Beads by Calvin Largo, Navajo

New beads are shiny and polished and if kept buffed, they will retain their shiny surface. If left unpolished, they will develop a patina.

Antiqued beads are those that have been treated so that they have a darkened appearance of patina.

Antiqued Sterling Silver Beads by Virginia Tso, Navajo

Antiqued Sterling Silver Beads by Virginia Tso, Navajo

How Navajo Pearls are Made

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The Navajo silversmith that makes beads has two specialized hand tools. One is a dapping block that has concave half domes of various sizes in it. The other is a set of correspondingly sized dapping punches, which have ball ends.

Each bead starts out as two flat discs of sterling silver of a specific size. Each disc is domed one at a time by placing the disc over an appropriately sized cavity and dapping it with the punch until the flat disc becomes domed. Each half-bead is filed so that it will fit evenly with the other half-bead. A hole is drilled in the top of each dome. The burr from the drilling is filed off. Narrow strips of silver solder are cut and placed between the halves and with ample flux the two pieces are soldered together. The edge is filed and the bead is polished.

OK, one plain smooth bead has been made !

Variations on the process are needed if the bead is to be stamped or fluted.

If a bead is going to have a stamped design on it, the stamping usually occurs before dapping which is why the stamping on some beads might be a little bit deeper or shallower among beads. Remember – handmade.

If a bead is going to be fluted (sometimes called embossed), the silversmith uses fluted dies that fit into the dapping block as well as corresponding fluted punches. Fluted beads require larger discs of sterling silver to make a corresponding smooth bead of the same size. That’s because the fluting or “pleats” use up a good amount of material.

Most Navajo Pearls are strung on foxtail cord, which is a woven silver cord that can be sterling silver, nickel or other metals. A foxtail cord or chain is more like a cable, its strength and durability comes from weaving many small strands.

Weight of the beads

The final weight of a necklace starts with the gauge of the sterling silver sheet that is used to make the discs. Weight is directly related to price. Two similar looking 18” necklaces, for example, one weighing 20 grams and one weighing 50 grams will vary greatly in price, the latter probably costing 3 times the former.

Weight also affects drape. A heavier necklace hangs with a better shape than a lighter one. And heavier beads are more durable, a characteristic to consider if you are going to use the beads with large pendants. A necklace made with heavier beads will stand up to the job better than a lightweight one.

Weight is a personal preference though and you might want various weights for various uses. A very tiny woman would not want to wear a large, heavy necklace or it would be a burden rather than a joy. An average sized woman, however, can comfortably wear any sterling silver necklace in our store and most women have indicated to me, “the heavier the better”.

Length of beads

Most women wear a choker size 16-19”. A choker is a necklace that fits comfortably around the neck and is perfect for peeking out from underneath an open collared shirt or displayed openly when wearing a tank top, a V-neck tee shirt or halter top.

Sterling Silver Navajo Pearls with Pendant

Sterling Silver Navajo Pearls with Pendant

Chokers are also ideal for use with pendants. Pendants that work with sterling silver beads include those with a Shepherd’s Hook or a large open bail.

Shepherd's Hook on Native American Pendant

Shepherd’s Hook on Native American Pendant

Large Bail on a Native American Pendant

Large Bail on a Native American Pendant

Silver bead necklaces in the 19-22 inch range are great for wearing over a collared shirt, a sweater or a turtleneck – the added length gives the space need for over-the-clothing use.

Longer necklaces, those up to 28 inches in length can be used alone or in combination with fetish, heishi or squash blossom necklaces.

So, now Cynthia, to answer your question specifically:

You have one set of plain 18” beads (all-one-size) that are ideal for use alone as the classic “Navajo Pearls” or with a pendant.

You have one set of 19 ½” deeply stamped ornate beads that you could use over a sweater or collared shirt and could easily be stand-alone or could be used with a simple pendant.

If I were in your position, I’d either add a shorter stamped graduated or all-one-size stamped bead necklace to wear as a stand-alone choker. Depending on your size, that would probably be in the 16-19 inches range.

Remember, if you choose a graduated necklace, it would difficult if not impossible to use a pendant with it since the center bead is the biggest and would make it difficult to place a pendant in a balanced position.

The very first sterling silver necklace I purchased was a 17” stamped graduated choker and it is still one of my favorite “go-to” necklaces.

Have fun browsing and choosing and let me know if I can provide any other information about Navajo Pearls, one of my first jewelry passions. Paula

27 thoughts on “Navajo Pearls – Everything You Need to Know About Sterling Silver Native American Beads

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  2. Pingback: Choosing Sterling Silver Navajo Pearls « Native American Jewelry Tips

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  4. just found your website.. I learned a lot from your info. Thanks

    (still in the learning stages) looking for native american jewelry at
    goodwills, etc. , trying to know what to look for

  5. Thankyou soooo much for sharing. I have quite a few items nic nacs jewelry and various other items that thanks to people like you let me understand just how unique and rare the craft is in the modern world.I treasure my treasures all the more and many thanks again. May the Creator bless you always!Ravenseye

  6. Hello Paula I have a necklace with two pieces of turquoise. It looks very old but I really dont know. We lived in Oklahoma a few years ago and my husband use to trade things for native american crafts. This is one of the pieces. If I could send you a picture maybe you could tell me something about it. Thank you Janice

  7. Great information, I am looking for the imitation Navajo pearl beads don’t know if this is up your alley but if have any information would appreciate it

  8. I saw your navajo silver pearl necklaces and was wondering if you have knowledge about turquoise and navajo/zuni silver and coral…etc pieces. I’ve recently inherited over 50 pieces and am looking to sell. However I’ve spent countless hours online tracking down hallmarks and materials and specific mines and need help pricing and selling my collection. I have some big ticket items such as squash blossom and turquoise from demale mine in Nevada that is rare. If interested, please let me know. Any help is appreciated!!! My name is Laurie

  9. Pingback: Foxtail, Chain and more……….. | Native American Jewelry Tips

  10. I inherited a choker of Navajo pearls
    Am interested in learning the meaning of the stamped designs on each pearl
    They are different on each bead
    Your article is very informative
    Thank you
    Joan

  11. Hello
    Thank you for the informative response to your customer. I learned so much about Navajo pearls. I recently bought a pair ,that are from Santa Fe, here in San Antonio TX. They are round smooth 7m and have additional decorative ones in groups of three breaking up the plain ones nicely. They are oxidized not shiny silver. I’m just wondering how do I know if they are real silver not pewter ? The store I bought them in had sterling handmade jewelry so I assumed mine were also but I don’t see a stamp on them. Thank you for your time

  12. Thanks to you, I think I now have the difference between bench and handmade beads down pat visually. I have two squash blossom necklaces with bench beads and a third which has me mystified . . . the jasper and turquoise blossoms and the naja are sterling . . however the beads are NOT – very magnetic, no seam, and don’t test silver at all. Why would this have been done? To save dollars . . to deceive? Have you ever encountered pieces like the one I’ve described. Any input would be appreciated . . I’m learning sooo much!

    • Glad you are finding my blog helpful. And YES !! I have had the same thing come in here at the store with a mixed estate lot. The naja and stone set blossoms were sterling but the beads in between were stainless steel !!! EEEEK ! Why this was done I have no idea but I have seen what you describe. Glad you are testing things and learning ! Thanks for stopping by !! Paula

  13. A+. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and having such a detailed website for reference. It is clear a lot of time spent on this website and even more, I’m sure maintaining it. Much appreciated. I will be back to read this again and again. Good Job. Robyn

  14. I have a set of vintage Navajo beads and at the bottom there is a random half circle 10 pieces of sterling attached what does this mean

  15. Hi Paula. I thought I had asked you this question before but I do not see it posted so perhaps I did not. I was interested to know whether or not men wear navajo silver beads. I have seen historic photos of navajo men wearing silver beads but not so much present day. I have some nice pendants in my collection and two pairs of silver beads so I was wondering; do men wear navajo silver beads or do they only wear pendants on chains? Kindly advise and thanks! Hal

    • HI Hal,
      It is purely a matter of personal preference. I’ve seen many men wear silver beads – such as large squash blossom necklaces and also with pendants such as nagas, turquoise or inlay pendants and more……………it is kind of like the bolo question – do women wear bolos? I know a lot that do……although we tend to associate bolos more with men. All good ! Paula

  16. I’m confused. I thought Navajo pearls were sterling and smooth with no visible seams. I’ve a necklace marked D.E.C. Sterling and it fits the above. Would they be considered “pearls”? I’ve seen others on line with seams and referred to as “pearls”, but I would think they were bench beads. Can bench beads be considered pearls? Could I send yo two pics so you can help clarify for me?

    • Probably strictly speaking, Navajo Pearls or Desert Pearls are either smooth or stamped (design) beads that have been hand made or at least hand finished so that they do appear to be round with no protruding seam.
      Bench beads with their prominent seams don’t really seem like pearls, do they? So probably should not be called “pearls” but the term Navajo Pearls seems to be used quite broadly to describe the category of sterling silver bead necklaces in general.
      It is not a hard and fast rule.
      But a good question and good point !
      Paula

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