The first Native Americans of the Southwest to learn silver smithing were the Navajo, whose knowledge of silver came initially from the Spanish during the 1500s. It was not until 1870, however, that silver work really took hold in the American Southwest. After basing their technique on original Spanish methods, the Navajo began to adapt designs to incorporate traditional cultural meanings and their own sense of artistry.
During the 1880’s, Navajo silver smiths began setting stones in their pieces, specifically turquoise and other tribes such as the Zuni followed with their inlay style. For them, turquoise symbolized the sky and water and was associated with healing and protection. The American Southwest is an ideal environment for turquoise, which is a mineral generally found at higher elevations in semiarid regions.
After being marginalized as a culture due to Western expansion, native artists were able to use these locally mined stones and their skilled craftsmanship for monetary survival. Despite constraints on Native culture, jewelry design and innovation flourished.