There is perhaps no art form more synonymous with Southwest Native American jewelry than the Squash Blossom Necklace. The history of this iconic necklace is a fascinating tale of the fusion of cultures and an enduring fashion statement across generations.
What is a Squash Blossom Necklace?
The Squash Blossom Necklace has been interpreted by many artists and has taken many forms over the centuries, but typically features round silver beads, interspersed with beads that have a flared side like that of a blooming flower, with a single centered horseshoe-shaped pendant called a Naja. The variations on this template are limitless, however, and are only constrained by the imagination of an artist.
When were the first Squash Blossom Necklaces made?
It is believed that the Navajo (or Diné) people were the first to adopt the Squash Blossom Necklace design, sometime in the late 1870s. Soon thereafter, however, most neighboring Southwest tribes had incorporated the necklace into their jewelry designs as well. Today, the Squash Blossom is an art form made by many Native and non-Native artists throughout the Southwest and beyond.
While the Native people of the Southwest had long histories of jewelry making and personal adornment, it wasn’t until contact with the Spanish that they began to incorporate metals into their work. The Navajo were certainly among the first to work with metals, perhaps initially capturing or trading for simple iron adornments from Spanish soldiers as well as their horse bridles and saddles. These ornaments soon made their way onto necklaces that graced the necks of the local populace.
As the Navajo began to learn the art of silversmithing in the late 1800s (a craft also attributed to continued contact with the Spanish and Spanish Mexicans), these metal adornments were probably recreated in silver form and strung together with beads formed from silver coins to form a proper necklace. As with many native cultures, wealth was often worn in the form of adornment, and in many early photographs of the Navajo and other Southwestern Native peoples, it is clear that Squash Blossom Necklaces were worn with pride and reverence for their beauty and inherent value.
Where did the name “Squash Blossom” come from?
Most agree that the term “Squash Blossom” refers to the unique, integral flared beads that line a Squash Blossom necklace. These beads do, in fact, resemble the blossom of a flowering squash plant - and to further support this interpretation, squash was one of the primary crops (along with beans and corn) that sustained the Native people of the Southwest, and is referred to as one of the four sacred plants of the Navajo. Seems like a simple answer, right? Maybe, but digging deeper into the history of the Southwest and the passage of symbols across cultures, the answer may be even more interesting than that.
The squash blossom bead bears an even more striking resemblance to the pomegranate fruit, the image of which has been a recurring motif in art and literature for more than 2000 years. Originally cultivated in the Middle East, the pomegranate spread east to China and west to Africa, and eventually proliferated in southern Spain. In fact, the city of Granada in Spain’s Andalusia region was named after the revered fruit, which symbolized many things including royalty due to its crown-like shape as well as fertility, birth, and eternal life, due to its abundance of seeds.
In colonial times, the Spanish brought the plant and its symbology with them to the New World, and the iconography decorated their missions as well as their personal adornments and horse gear. Given the knowledge that the Navajo assimilated these ornaments into their jewelry, we can assume that the “squash blossom” bead is actually the descendant of thousands of years of Eurasian symbology, and perhaps was only given the name “squash blossom” in the early 20th Century when marketing the necklace to the tourists traveling the Southwest via train.
In addition to the beads, perhaps the most defining characteristic of a Squash Blossom necklace is its centerpiece, the “Naja.” A crescent-like shape, the Naja is another symbol believed to have roots in the Middle East, brought to Spain by the Moors. The Navajo, whether directly from the Spanish, or indirectly through the influence of the Plains Indians, adopted the crescent form as a horse headstall (the front-center band of the bridle). Only later did it become the crowning achievement of their Squash Blossom necklaces, hanging symmetrically at the center of the necklace when worn. Although the Navajo claim that the Naja has no precise symbolic or spiritual significance, it is ubiquitous in their culture and held in high esteem.
Who can wear Squash Blossom Necklaces?
Anyone, anytime, anywhere! While Squash Blossoms experienced a peak in popularity sometime in the 1970s, they have always been in fashion, as seen in the earliest known portraits of Native Americans by photographer Edward Curtis to today’s fashion icons. Today, Squash Blossoms are as popular as ever, thanks in part to an increased appreciation for handmade crafts among the millennial generation. Furthermore, men are once again donning the historic art form, in timeless fashion.
Purchasing a Squash Blossom Necklace
A Squash Blossom necklace has always been the pride of an owner's collection and the decision of which to purchase is no small task! As always, when purchasing collectible handmade jewelry, our first recommendation is to work with a reputable dealer who can help you find the right piece and guarantee the craftsmanship and authenticity of the necklace you choose. Secondarily, Squash Blossom necklaces come in all shapes, sizes, colors, weights and lengths. Whichever necklace you choose should be comfortable to wear, so if you're shopping in person, try a few on. If you are shopping online, make sure the dealer offers a fair return policy in case the necklace is too heavy or the colors are not as described. Whether you prefer a large necklace with stones or a lighter mid-century "Box Bow" style, there's a Squash Blossom for everyone! Whichever you choose, you will carry a legacy of beauty and history around your neck for years to come.