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Indian Jewelry, Old World and New
When someone mentions Indian jewelry, what do you think of: chunky silver conchos bursting with inlaid turquoise, or elegant, ornamented bracelets, necklaces, and earrings from the Indian subcontinent? Both cultures offer their unique artistic styles, emblems, and decorative elements, whether they be thunderbirds or Hindu goddesses, and can add a touch of the exotic to any wearer's ensemble. Since both types of Indian jewelry are worthy of discussion, in this guide we'll briefly examine the pieces and materials typical of each.
Diverse origins, singular beauty
Indian jewelry from the Indian subcontinent arises from a variety of cultural traditions, given the vast size and diversity of the population. It takes the form of a variety of earrings, necklaces, bangles, bracelets, and finger-rings, as well as nose-piercings. This type of Indian jewelry tends to be quite colorful and ornate. Gold and diamonds are favorite materials, though other gemstones, crystal, onyx, and silver are also popular.
A type of jewelry unique to India and Pakistan is the mangalsutra, a colorful necklace that is a symbol of marriage; consider it the equivalent of a woman's wedding ring in the Western world. In many segments of the Indian population, the tradition of wearing the mangalsutra is so strong that no married woman would be caught without one. Sometimes, mangalsutra sets consisting of both necklace and earrings are worn. Also popular is thewa jewelry, which originated in Rajasthan (a northwestern Indian state) and consists of intricate gold work on colored glass. The manufacture of thewa jewelry is very exacting and difficult, but the result is extraordinary. Thewa is often sold in sets consisting of large pendants and matching earrings.
Images of the American Southwest
Then there's that other type of Indian jewelry, the kind that comes from the New World. Everyone knows the old story of how, when Columbus stumbled across North America, he thought he was in India -- after all, no one ever expected that there would be a whole continent in the way on the western route between Europe and the Far East. In any case, he called the inhabitants "Indians," and the name has stuck ever since. While there were more than 500 different tribes in North America alone, most modern American Indian jewelry has a pan-Indian flair that tends toward a Southwestern look; and indeed, the finest work comes primarily from the tribes of the American Southwest, especially the Navajos and the Pueblo tribes.
While Indian jewelry from the New World can take the form of golden trinkets of all types -- witness the fine work of the Mexican and Central American Indians -- the most distinctive Native American jewelry takes advantage of the most common precious elements in the Southwestern environment: silver, and the semi-precious copper- and aluminum-based mineral called turquoise. Both items are often used individually to form lovely pieces of jewelry, particularly necklaces and bracelets, but their combined use is both attractive and highly distinctive. Decorate silver disks called conchos are a mainstay of this form of Indian jewelry, but pendants, drop earrings, and geometrical shapes are also often manufactured, often by independent artisans working by hand.