Nothing is as striking as a necklace made of strands of red coral beads from Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo.
Coral has been a part of Native American jewelry from the time the first traders appeared in the Southwest. It’s easy to understand why. The red color was highly prized for jewelry, just like the red dyes that were first introduced to the Navajo in the 1800s. Red stands out and is not easily found in nature in the Southwest. Coral was first brought to the Americas by European traders nearly 600 years ago.
It looks like a stone, but it is a calcium carbonate skeleton formed by coral polyps living in nutrient-rich ocean water. Most red coral comes from the Mediterranean. These days, harvesting is limited to protect the source. There has been a lot of pressure on coral reefs; from pollution, unwise harvesting, and warmer waters.
There is a recent trend towards harvesting lighter color coral and dying it to make it more colorful for creating jewelry. While that has filled a certain market, it certainly doesn’t have the beauty you would want from natural coral.
The good news is that there is a strong effort today, to protect and carefully harvest these coral beds. Most of the pieces shown here are at least 40 years old.
If you attend a dance at any of the Pueblo villages, you find dancers and spectators alike wearing strands of coral and turquoise jewelry. The same is true at any celebration in the Navajo Nation.
These strands of coral, some hand-cut and ground into beads, and some just small pieces of coral that are drilled and strung as necklaces can be worn with your best dress-up clothes or with jeans and a t-shirt. They are lightweight and make a statement!
Some are mixed with silver beads or turquoise. Some have silver clasps, and some have a traditional wrap at the neck. Some are short, some are longer, but all of them are natural coral, hand-worked by Santo Domingo artists.
I have talked about this once before in a newsletter, but for those who missed it and wonder, Santo Domingo Pueblo has reverted to the name it had before the arrival of the Spanish. It is now known as Kewa. The issue for many of the jewelers in the Pueblo (who are many) was that they didn’t want to change the name given to their work. Jennifer Medina, a fabulous artist friend from there, told me that the Tribal Council recognized the problem and to continues to promote traditional jewelry as “Santo Domingo.”