The squash blossom necklace evolved over several centuries, and although its history is rooted in non-Native culture, the style has become synonymous with Southwestern American Indian jewelry.
The distinguishing feature of the squash blossom necklace is the crescent-shaped pendant lying at its center, known as the naja. While this crescent-shaped symbol is believed to have originated in the ancient Middle East as a talisman worn to ward off evil, it would be the Spanish who brought it to what is now the American Southwest. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, these pendants were worn as iron ornaments on Spanish conquistadores’ leather horse bridles. Traded or acquired from captured horses, these ornaments soon adorned the necks of the local Native populace. When silver beading came into vogue in the late 1800s, Navajos (Diné) began displaying naja pendants on necklaces strung with small, silver beads.
Squash blossom imagery can be found in petroglyphs that pre-date European arrival in the Southwest, but this imagery did not appear in necklace form until after the Native people of the area came into contact with the Spanish. The squash blossom as a design concept originated with the Navajo. They were the first Southwest tribe to utilize the design of the edible gourd, an important source of sustenance. By the early 1900s, the symbol had traveled to the Zuni pueblo and others along the Rio Grande.
The name of the necklace comes from the tri-petal bead, the “blossom,” developed by Navajo silversmiths, who called it yo ne maze disya gi, or “bead that spreads out.” But the classic squash blossom necklace is actually comprised of three distinct components: the plain, unembellished round beads, round beads embellished with blooming petals and the naja centerpiece.
The naja is also representative of the womb; a single nugget of turquoise suspended from the pendant symbolizes a child growing within. And though the squash blossom necklace to which it is attached has no specific ceremonial function among Southwest tribes, it was traditionally worn as a symbol of one’s status, wealth and cultural belonging.
Some believe the squash blossom was taken from the pomegranate-shaped decorations found on the buttons of Spanish soldiers. Others assert that the squash blossom is just that — an homage to one of the most important foods of the early Southwest Native diet. Along with beans and corn, squash is one of the Three Sisters. This trio of crops share a symbiotic relationship when planted together and have provided sustenance to Indigenous peoples of the high desert for centuries. Origins aside, one thing is clear: the squash blossom represents a centuries-old fusion of cultures and design.
Early “First Phase” Native silversmithing, an era from 1860-1900, produced rustic, handmade squash blossom necklaces. The najas were pure silver, often cast in a type of limestone known as tufa. Later, necklaces were set with turquoise petit point and needlepoint inlay, techniques most commonly attributed to the Zuni. Many exquisite, highly collectable pieces can be found among old pawn jewelry offered by shops and galleries, as well as at estate sales. In recent years, many older pieces have been recycled into new works, a reflection of soaring prices for silver and high-quality turquoise.
The popularity of squash blossom necklaces peaked in the early to mid 1970s, when bohemian fashion trends sparked a boom in production. A buying frenzy ensued when demand outweighed supply, and a robust collectors market soon followed. A decline in production toward the end of the decade put the necklaces temporarily out of most consumers’ reach until a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s.
While traditional necklaces were often set with turquoise cabochons, sometimes carved into frogs and other animals, and occasionally adorned with coral or jet (lignite), the glitz and glamor of the ’80s brought many innovations. Necklaces were set with lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl and onyx, and even safety pins made an occasional appearance.
Through its many incarnations the squash blossom necklace has essentially remained true to its original form. Many squash blossom necklaces worn today are over one hundred years old, having been passed down through the generations, with some of us are wearing the same necklaces worn by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. And while the style is not a major art form today, many Native American jewelers continue to pay homage to the squash blossom’s elegant, enduring beauty.
RoseMary Diaz is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe. She studied literature at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Naropa University and the University of California at Santa Cruz.