Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo Jewelry: What Makes It Unique?

Long before the Europeans came to America, Native American tribes had been crafting and wearing jewelry for personal adornment. As settlers came to their land, jewelry became more important to Native Americans as a means of economic survival, a story especially true among the Santo Domingo tribe of New Mexico.

Santo Domingo jewelry continues to be highly sought-after for its beauty and history. Modern-day artists draw upon the traditions and materials used by their ancestors. Santo Domingo jewelry has a shared history with other Native American jewelry types, but it has features and a history all its own. These defining features will reveal what makes this jewelry unique.

Heishi Beads

Perhaps the most distinguishable feature of Santo Domingo jewelry is the use of heishi, pronounced hee-shee. Heishi are small beads made from materials like shells or stone. The beads are usually disc or tube shaped. The word “heishi” means “shell bead” in Eastern Keresan, a language of the Santo Domingo Native Americans.

Traditionally, heishi beads were created by using a cactus needle to drill a hole through a rough shell fragment or stone. The raw bead would then be sanded down with hundreds of other fragments on a foot-powered stone wheel.

Today, heishi beads can be made from any material, though they are still often made from shells or stones. Modern power tools have upgraded the drilling and sanding process. Other modern innovations include large heishi beads comprised of many smaller beads. Our Santo Domingo artists use materials like turquoise, shells, jet, coral, lapis, and other gemstones to create their heishi beads.

Mosaic Inlay

Mosaic inlay pieces are another hallmark of Santo Domingo jewelry. To create these pieces, artists use smaller heishi beads and create a unique mosaic over a large piece of shell or bone. Modern-day artists sometimes draw inspiration from archaeological patterns or the patterns that occur naturally in stones.

Gemstone Slab Jewelry

Slab jewelry is a relatively modern addition to Santo Domingo jewelry. They feature large slabs of gemstones for a bold feel. Due to their size, modern technology is required to help stabilize these large cuts of gemstones. Slab jewelry uses little metal, instead allowing the unique beauty of the gemstone stand out. Often, slab jewelry features turquoise, though other stones can be used as well.

Silver Casting and Overlay

In the 1600s, the Spanish introduced most Native Americans in the American Southwest to silversmithing. Santo Domingo Native Americans didn’t adopt the process until later. Ralph Atencio, one of the first Santo Domingo artists to learn silversmithing, learned the art in 1893. Different tribes have favored different silverworking methods over the years: the Santo Domingo Native Americans tend to use tufa stone-cast and overlay in their jewelry.

With tufa casting, the artist carves a design into a tufa stone, which is a type of soft volcanic rock. Tufa stone is textured, so silver jewelry cast this way retains some of that texture.

The overlay method requires two pieces of silver. The artist carves the design into one piece, and that piece is then soldered to the other.


Turquoise has been used in jewelry for thousands of years. Known as “Skystone” to Native Americans, turquoise has appeared in the earliest Native American jewelry and continues to be a hallmark of their work today. In Santo Domingo jewelry, turquoise is commonly used to make heishi and mosaic inlays.

Turquoise forms when water trickles into a host rock, depositing copper, zinc, and aluminum in the stone. The color of turquoise depends on the metals present in the rock. A higher concentration of copper will make the gemstone more blue, while a higher concentration of iron will make the gemstone more green. Aluminum can make the turquoise lighter whereas zinc can create a yellow-green color. The spiderweb patterns within turquoise gemstones are made up of the original rock, and the color varies depending on the elements of that rock. Turquoise is especially prized for these unique, beautiful patterns.


Another material commonly used in Santo Domingo jewelry is jet. Jet is a type of coal made from fossilized coniferous evergreen wood. When jet is highly polished, it can take on a gemstone-like sheen. It is popular both in fetish carvings and for inlaid jewelry pieces.

Thunderbird Jewelry

The Thunderbird is a legendary Native American creature of supernatural strength and power, though its particular role varies from tribe to tribe. Thunderbird jewelry has an inspiring place in Santo Domingo history. During the 1920s and the Great Depression, many of the materials traditionally used in Santo Domingo jewelry, such as jet and turquoise, became scarce or unaffordable. Jewelry making then became an important means of revenue for the Santo Domingo people.

The Santo Domingo Pueblo was located very close to Santa Fe, New Mexico, which was a popular tourist destination along Route 66. In order to create jewelry to sell to tourists, Santo Domingo jewelry makers got creative in the difficult economic times. They started to create jewelry using found materials, things you might consider garbage. Instead of using traditional materials that were hard to come by, the artists made beautiful pieces from things like old car batteries, sun-bleached animal bones, gypsum, tiny shards of turquoise, and bits of plastic. Often, this jewelry featured the image of a Thunderbird with outstretched wings, and they sold by the thousands.

Today, the Thunderbird remains an important motif in Santo Domingo jewelry. However, when the economy picked back up after the Great Depression, artists returned to using their traditional materials like turquoise and jet.

At Southwest Silver Gallery, we’re dedicated to supporting local Native American artists. This jewelry is all handcrafted by artists from the Santo Domingo tribe. Visit our site to view our entire selection of Santo Domingo jewelry, and if you have any questions about our pieces or the artists, please feel free to contact us.