Friday, March 2, 2012


We are all familiar with bead necklaces and it is an easy enough task to go down to the local craft store and buy beads and "string" them ourselves.  But bead making, and particularly heishi, is a unique and time intensive art form practiced by a few master craftspeople.

What is heishi? The word (pronounced 'hee-shee') comes from the Keres language of the Santo Domingo (Kewa) Indians of the American southwest and means 'shell necklace'. Traditionally only shells were used to make these necklaces although now the term has come to include bead necklaces of other natural materials such as turquoise shaped in the same manner and having the same look as the original shell necklaces.

Heishi detail of a necklace by Marlene Rosetta (Santo Domingo)

This style of beadwork is thought to be the oldest form of jewelry from New Mexico and is still practiced today mostly among Native Americans of the the Santo Domingo (Kewa) and San Felipe Pueblos.  It predates the metalworking and lapidary techniques practiced by the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni, which were introduced by Europeans.

In antiquity, shell material was brought from coastal locations through extensive trade networks that extended from California to South America. The human labor involved in transportation and manufacture meant these necklaces had tremendous value, which still carries over today.

The making of heishi is still a labor intensive process and starts with raw material, shell or natural stones, which the artist must cut into thin layers (shell material is usually already thin) then snip into small squares of roughly the same size. The artist then drills a small hole in the center of each square, holding onto the piece with tweezers.  The hole must be very small because any lateral movement during the sanding process will result in uneven discs and will not make a smooth strand.  The drilled pieces are strung on piano wire and the refining process can begin.  Modern-day heishi artists use electric lapidary equipment to facilitate the shaping process. Still, as the artist rounds the discs against a grinding wheel, the evenness and diameter of the beads are all controlled by hand. The thinness and small size of the beads means that some will break in the shaping process and must be discarded, even if there is only a small chip out of the surface.  Material such as natural turquoise can result in up to 70% loss, making these necklaces a much sought after luxury.

Heishi making materials
The material is slabbed and cut into strips then holes are drilled
Once the holes are drilled in the strips they are cut into squares and strung for sanding
Once the rough shaping is done the sanding and polishing can begin. This is accomplished with an electric sanding wheel through multiple courses of progressively fine sandpaper until they are silky smooth.  A final polish with polishing compound on a leather belt imparts a lustrous shine. At this point, the beads are ready for final stringing, either together or in combination with other hand finished beads.

The finished strand will feel completely uniform and silky smooth when run through the hand.

Shell and turquoise heishi necklace by Ramona Bird (Santo Domingo)

Detail of the necklace above

When looking for authentic American Indian handmade heishi, always buy from a reputable dealer or well-known artist in the field.  The demand for this beautiful art form is high and inferior imports abound.

Many thanks to heishi artist Joe Calabaza (Santo Domingo)
who kindly let me photograph his display for this article
(Heard Indian Market 2012)

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