Pre-Columbian jewelry – native American jewelry

Pre-Columbian jewelry - native American jewelry

Articles of native American jewelry, generally made of gold or tumbaga, but sometimes of jadeite (pre-columbian jade jewelry), in many indigenous forms and styles, by the American Indians before the coming of Columbus (1492) and during the period thereafter until the conquest in the 16th century by the Spanish Conquistadors (hence sometimes called ‘pre-Hispanic jewelry’) in certain countries of Middle America (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama) and South America (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile).

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Tumbaga is an alloy of gold and copper (about four parts to one, with some accidental silver naturally in the gold) made and used by the Indians of the Andes, Central America, and Mexico for many articles of native American pre-columbian jewelry. It had a lower melting point and a greater hardness than either of the metals alone.

It had a dull colour but was brightened, usually in limited areas to make a design, by use of heat and a mineral paste or a preparation of plant juices which removed the copper from the surface, and was sometimes further brightened by burnishing. Local terms for the metal were ‘guanin gold’, ‘caricoli’, and ‘karakoli’.

Articles of pre-columbian jade jewelry made usually of jadeite, but sometimes of serpentine or green chalcedony, in Middle America, principally in Costa Rica and Mexico, the pieces being in the form of beads and pendants. The pendants usually depict birds, animals or anthropomorphic figures sometimes holding a pair of staffs, and are pierced horizontally so as to be strung facing frontally.

The gold pieces were usually made of flat sheet metal, hammered and decorated with «repousse» and false filigree work or cast by the «cire perdue» process, and with a total absence of enamelling on any known examples and occasional use of turquoise or a few other gemstones.

Such articles included mainly pectorals, masks, diadems labrets, nose ornaments, ear ornaments, and necklaces, and certain objects indigenous to some regions.

Most of the native American jewelry, pillaged by the Spaniards, was destroyed by them or in Spain for the gold content, and what survives today is mainly from robbed graves and tombs or from recent excavations.

As there were trading posts throughout the region, some articles have been found far from the place of fabrication, at sites 4,000 miles apart, and from periods of time ranging through 1,500 years, thus creating unsolved problems of attribution. The dating of pieces is uncertain, and tentatively estimated dates vary in each region.