The literal meaning of heishi is "shell" and
specifically refers to pieces of shell which have been drilled
and ground into beads and then strung into necklaces. More and
more frequently, however, heishi (pronounced hee-shee)
has come to refer to hand-made tiny beads made of any natural
The origin of heishi is fascinating
indeed, and is inescapably linked to the ancient history of the
people most proficient in its making, the Santo Domingo and San
Felipe Pueblo Indians. It is safe to say that this is the oldest
form of jewelry in New Mexico (and perhaps in North America),
pre-dating the introduction of metals. Centuries ago, the shells
used by the Pueblo Indians to make beads were obtained in trade
from the Gulf of California.
When one looks at a string of heishi,
the first reaction is frequently "how on earth can a person do that?" or "to
be so perfect, it must be done by machines." The truth is,
if it seems exquisitely perfect, it was most likely made by the
hands of a highly-skilled, extremely patient craftsperson.
Knowing the steps involved in the creation
of a good string of heishi can help a potential buyer
distinguish—and appreciate the difference— between
excellent hand-made jewelry and imitations. First, the raw materials
are chosen. The most commonly used are seashells of all kinds—dark
and light olive
shells, spiney oysters, mother-of-pearl, melon shell. Coral and
stones such as lapis, turquoise, jet, pipestone and serpentine
are also used to create exquisite contemporary heishi necklaces.
The artisan must pay anywhere from 4-grade lapis or uncut coral.
Now the process begins. With vulnerable fingers
on either side of a whirring blade, the raw material is sliced
into strips. Next, small squares are made by biting off pieces
of the slice with a hand tool such as a nipper. Using tweezers
to hold the tiny squares and a dentist's carbide bur, a small
hole is drilled into the center of each square. After these rough
squares of shell or stone are strung together on fine wire, the
process of grinding, shaping and smoothing is begun.
Top to bottom:
rough and ground;
rough and ground
The artist shapes the string of rough beads
by moving the string again and again against a turning stone
wheel, controlling the fineness and the diameter of the beads
with his hands. At this point, many beads (stone or shell) will
be lost--they will chip or will crack and fly off as the grinder
catches a flaw or burr. Each type of material must be ground
separately. For example, pipestone and jet (high grade anthracite
coal) are soft and grind down much faster than the harder materials
such as turquoise, shell or lapis. Also, some materials are more
difficult to work than others. With natural turquoise, for example,
approximately 60-70 percent is lost. To minimize loss, each bead
must be nipped into a rough circle before being ground. By now
a string of cylinders, often graduated in size, has been formed
and is ready for sanding.
The heishi is
further shaped and smoothed with ever-finer grades of sand paper.
The string is then washed with clear water and put in the sun
to air dry. Finally, the string of heishi is given a high
polish on a turning leather belt. The smooth, polished beads
are now ready to be strung, either together or with other beads,
as a piece of fine jewelry.
Following these steps, it will take from 2 days to a week to
prepare a single strand of heishi.
What to look for
Detail, fine heishi
A string of good heishi will have a uniform
consistency. If you gently pull it through your hand, it should
feel like a single serpent-like piece. (Note: Precisely because of
the handwork involved, a fine string of heishi may contain
a slightly flawed or chipped individual bead.)
On the other hand, inferior "heishi-style" beads
will often have holes that are too large, making the strand look
and feel uneven and irregular. To make matters worse, this beadwork
is frequently made of a variety of plastic materials of all colors,
including block or reconstituted jet, coral or turquoise.
In the end, the quality of fine heishi comes
directly from the ingenuity and integrity of the individual artisan.
Learning something about the artisan, whether he or she has been
reviewed by SWAIA for
acceptance into Indian Market, or is a member of the
and Crafts Association are
means of assuring that you are buying quality heishi.
And of course, an ethical gallery or dealer will help you learn
about the artist, the beads themselves and the creative process.
The final guarantee is a certificate of authenticity which may
be—and should be—requested from the individual dealer
An excellent source of information regarding jewelry of the
Indian Jewelry—Fact and Fantasy, Marsha Mayer
Lund, Paladin Press 1976.
By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 , classical radio in Albuquerque.
Photographs courtesy of Silver
Sun - Santa Fe
Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to the Albuquerque Metro
Area - Volume 5
RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT
July 7, 2008