While the tradition of making jewelry out of shells and beads dates to prehistoric times, Native American silver-and-turquoise rings, bracelets, pins and the like are a relatively recent phenomenon, going back only as far as the mid-19th century. Pieces from the 1800s, if you can find them, were usually produced for tribal or religious purposes rather than adornment (the tourist trade came later).
When times got tough, people would take their most expendable personal pieces and pawn them, thus spawning the phrase "old pawn" to describe pre-1900 examples of Native American jewelry made of silver. Although there is a lot of jewelry on the market labeled "old pawn," only pieces from the 1800s deserve that label.
One of the controversial aspects of Native American jewelry is the extent to which non-Native traders influenced its production. These traders frequently coached Native American artisans to create designs of little or no cultural or historical relevance, provided them with tools and materials, and, of course, sold the finished pieces to tourists who had ventured into the Southwest via the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Beginning in 1899, what we’d call adventure-travelers could purchase Native American jewelry and other souvenirs at Fred Harvey curio shops.
Silver was the base metal for most of these pieces—squash-blossom necklaces were one of the first styles. For stones, Navajo artisans were the first to use turquoise, which was indigenous to the area but was quickly mined out—the best pieces were labeled with the name of their source mine. It wasn’t long before high-quality turquoise was being imported, while softer, poorer-quality stones were often treated with resin to make them hard.
Other tribes developed their own styles. Shell necklaces and mosaics were a specialty of the Pueblo, particularly members of the Santa Domingo tribe. The Zuni were known for their cluster pieces and use of red coral. And the Hopi produced pins and other objects that suggest textile influences.