Native American Jewelry – Vintage Restoration

Dear Paula:
I have an OLD 10 strand turquoise heishi necklace. It’s falling apart because the string is so old and there is no clasp its all tied in one big knot.
The beads are delicate and some are crumbling.
Help! Denee

Hello Denee,

The very old necklaces were strung with string, often heavy cotton thread such as coatmakers used to use to sew on buttons. Eventually with time, the thread deteriorates from wear and moisture. We have had some extremely heavy old turquoise necklaces in our pawn shop and I was so surprised to see that they were strung with string, and yet that was the way.

249 gram vintage turquoise necklace strung with string !!

249 gram vintage turquoise necklace strung with string !!

Today the artists can use all kinds of synthetic (and long lasting) threads and cords, memory wire (stainless steel wire that retains its shape), imitation sinew, elastic cord and foxtail which is a strong woven nickel chain that resists abrasion from beads sliding and moving.

As far as the turquoise stones, the very old stones were completely natural, that is, not treated or protected in any way. That’s why they are starting to crumble because turquoise, over time, can become dry and brittle and it reacts to oils and other things in the environment that cause the stone to break down.

Today almost all turquoise heishi is made from natural turquoise that has been treated in some way to protect the color from fading or changing and to keep the stone from crumbling. You can read about the various types of Turquoise here

The old style way of fastening a multi-strand necklace together is a squaw wrap which doesn’t involve any fasteners. Here is an example of what a squaw wrap looks like on a single strand fetish necklace.

Squaw Wrap

Squaw Wrap

Now as far as your 10-strand necklace, I wish I could recommend a Native American artist to restring your treasure, but I simply do not have someone to refer you to. When I have researched beads for other Non-Native American projects, and searched something like “stringing beads” in google, I came upon quite a number of (non NA) people that make new heishi necklaces and think you might find someone that way to restring your necklace.

As far as restoring your stones, I think leaving them as is would be best as that way they show the wabi-sabi of their vintage character.

I truly wish I could be more help, but perhaps by posting this, someone will reply that is a Native American jewelry restorer and I can put you in touch with each other.

Best of luck, Paula

9 thoughts on “Native American Jewelry – Vintage Restoration

  1. Wabi Sabi – Yes! Sitting on my desk I have a cherished book by that name given to me by my sister. “Imperfection” reminds me of my favorite section from “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

    “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

    “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but Really loves you, then you become Real.”

    “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

    “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

    “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

    “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

    • What a wonderful excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit – and so incredibly connected as this very excerpt was read at our wedding 35 years ago and counting.

      Thank you so much for sharing !

      I have a chubby book called Wabi Sabi too and often turn to it for a nugget of wisdom about the beauty of imperfection. I’ll bet it is the same book.

  2. When my clamshell heishi necklace needed restringing, I bought string at a bead store and re-strung it myself. I was told that for clamshell heishi, it is important that the beads go on the new string in the exact order in which they had been on the old string, as they had been hand-ground by rubbing a string of clamshell pieces through sand, therefore, the shapes conformed to the neighboring beads.

    Using a needle, I ran it through the eye of the beads and carefully removed a length of beads from the old string, and replaced them on the new string, in the exact same position to each other.

    With silver heishi, perhaps the order of the beads does not matter, but the owner can buy good quality string at a bead store and restring the beads that are still intact. The tricky part is tying off the necklace clasp, but instructions are on the internet.

    If Denee is ever in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and walks along the portico of the Palace of the Governors museum on the plaza, there will be many Native American jewelry makers who would be able to repair this piece.

    Also, those who work at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, also in Santa Fe, would be able to refer her to someone, as the workers in the gift shop are very knowledgeable about Indian jewelry.


  3. The same goes for turquoise heishi, Kathleen, as it is all ground and rolled and buffed and sanded in place, so each bead nests into the next one. So great advice for Denee if she attempts to restring it herself.

    Thank you so much for letting her know about the Santa Fe possibilities too.

    I’ve sent her a copy of your excellent suggestions in case she isn’t subscribed to this thread.

    Thank you !

  4. Yes – it is the same book my sister gave to me! I leave it on my “counter” at the law enforcement agency where I work and when coworkers pass by my cubicle they often stop and browse through it – sometimes copying down a line or two. It has evolved into a “Pay it Forward” with positive words.

  5. That is such a great gift that keeps on giving ! You are the conduit for positive energy. I can imagine those in law enforcement, who are often “rode hard and put up wet” would appreciate latching onto something to help them through their days.
    I’d done ride-alongs and attended several citizen’s police academies so have a good idea what law enforcement people go through every day.
    Thank YOU for sharing the wisdom from that great little book with them.
    And come back and visit often !

  6. Dear Paula and all those who responded:

    I have taken to task in restringing the piece myself and am being very careful trying to keep beads in order, yet it’s almost impossible as many of the beads are stuck to the thread and have to be eased off, many times breaking the string.
    Because some of the strands are broken, I am painstakingly doing each strand and fitting the broken ones together. Currently I’m on my second strand,,, wish me luck, I’ll keep you posted on my progress and again, thank you to those who responded and thank you to Paula!

  7. I have a zuni lapis inlay ring that has the dark blue stones damaged. I wouuld like to have the damaged stones relaced with either onyx, or a combination of multi colored stones… please advise.

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