The Incredible & Beautiful History of Gemstones in Mexican Jewelry
Mexican jewelry has a rich tradition dating back literally thousands of years. In the past, we’ve written about the historical use of silver in Mexican jewelry. Today we’ll talk about how native Mexican artisans have used gemstones to add flair, style, and deep meaning to their incredible works of art.
You’ll learn the history of gemstones in Mexican jewelry and discover how the motifs, styles, and meanings of Mexican jewelry have evolved over the centuries.
Let’s get started!
Gemstones Found in Mexican Jewelry
First, let’s quickly review a few of the gemstones you’ll frequently find used in Mexican jewelry.
- Turquoise – A beautiful blue-green stone, favored by artisans because it is easy to work with as well as for its beauty
- Amethyst – The most valuable type of quartz and known for its brilliant purple color
- Black Onyx – A very rare and striking stone, black onyx jewelry is thought to bring the wearer good luck, fortune and wealth.
- Red Jasper – Polished to a high shine, jasper is an incredibly durable stone used for beaded necklaces, pendants, and other pieces of jewelry.
In addition to these gemstones, obsidian a black volcanic glass, and jade, a rich green stone, are both commonly found in traditional Mexican jewelry.
Motifs of Mexican Jewelry
In addition to the variety of gemstones used, Mexican jewelry has several notable motifs:
- Religious – From early Mayan civilizations through today, religion has been an important aspect of life in Mexico. Mexican artists throughout the years have used jewelry to represent and honor their religions.
- Natural – Mexican artists often find inspiration in the natural beauty of their incredible country! Birds, snakes, lizards, insects, and flowers are all commonly represented in Mexican gemstone jewelry.
- Artistic Movements – Modern Mexican jewelry often mixes silver and gemstones to reflect art movements like Surrealism and Cubism, among others.
Pre-Columbian Gemstone Jewelry
The Beginnings of Mexican Jewelry: Early Mayan Period
During the very earliest years of the Mayan empire, artists fashioned jewelry from the materials available to them: teeth and bones from animals. As the civilization progressed, however, striking jewelry designs began to emerge.
Gold, jade, obsidian, and silver were all used by Mayan artists. Jewelry wasn’t just meant to be beautiful, it also signified a wearer’s social status or had religious significance. Early Mayans were also interested in body modification and created pieces meant to pierce the wearer’s nose, lips, or ears!
Historical Turquoise in Mexico
The history of Mexican turquoise jewelry began over 2,000 years ago! Native tribes used turquoise in their jewelry as early as the 200 BC! Early native artisans used turquoise to craft beads that could be traded as currency or to create beautiful jewelry. In addition to jewelry, turquoise was commonly used by Pre-Columbian artists to create incredible mosaics!
Toltec Turquoise & Jade
Moving forward nearly 1,000 years to around 900 AD, the Toltec civilization was also known for its incredible use of turquoise and other gemstones in jewelry, art, and religious iconography. Even more prized by Toltec artists was jade, a rich green gemstone. Jade was viewed as a gift from the gods to the Toltec people who used it in jewelry and to adorn their weaponry!
The peak of the Aztec empire began around 1150 AD and continued until around 1500 and the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. During the time, Aztec jewelry makers used turquoise and other gemstones to honor their gods.
Xiuhtecuhtli was the Aztec god of fire and the name roughly translates to “Turquoise Lord!” Aztec artists made turquoise masks, statues, and mosaics in his honor. Montezuma, perhaps the most famous Aztec emperor was often honored in pieces of jewelry.
In addition to turquoise, Aztec jewelry was also known for its use of opals, jade, and amethyst. Aztec jewelry makers developed innovative methods of grinding and polishing gemstones and even invented drills to make holes in stones for beads. Aztec jewelry frequently honored animals like jaguars, birds, and snakes— all of which held powerful religious significance.
Spanish conquistadors reached Mexico in the early 16th century, leading to the downfall of the Aztecs and other civilizations. During the centuries after the Spanish arrived, many European and Spanish influences can be seen in Mexican jewelry.
Silver quickly became a popular material and new gemstones were also brought over from Europe. Intricately designed earrings were popular in Europe at the time and became a hallmark of Mexican jewelry that continues to this day.
Spanish metalworkers also brought new techniques to Mexico, including filigree and repousse. In addition to these techniques, Mexican artists learned to “encrust” jewelry with small gemstones, a contrast with earlier pieces that featured larger shaped, carved, or polished gemstones.
Frida Kahlo is likely the best known Mexican artist of the past century. Her paintings, artwork, and style influenced artists and jewelry makers throughout Mexico. Kahlo’s work highlighted Mexico’s natural beauty and often included flowers and birds. Today, Mexican jewelry makers honor her memory and influence by creating intricate pieces using coral, turquoise, and other gemstones.
Perhaps one of the biggest influences on Mexican silver jewelry in the modern era, William Spratling was actually a trained architect from upstate New York! He eventually retired to Taxco where he began handcrafting silver jewelry combining traditional Pre-Columbian Mexican motifs with modern styles, including Cubism, Surrealism, and Art Deco influences.
Spratling influenced and taught other Mexican jewelry artists, including Antonio Pineda and Hector Aguilar. Their styles are characterized by interesting combinations of wood with precious gemstones like turquoise, amethyst, onyx, and obsidian.
One of our favorite artists at Mexican Silver Store is Ignacio “Nacho” Gomez. He continues the tradition of amazing Mexican silver workers and incorporates gemstones into many of his most notable pieces. Working in natural styles representing Mexican animals like crocodiles, armadillos, and chameleons, you’ll often find turquoise, and other gemstones used to highlight the animal’s eyes. In the piece above, peridot is the stone is used for the crocodile eyes, which gives it a reflective and iridescent look like a reptilian eye!
Continue Exploring Mexican Jewelry & Discover Pieces You Love!
There’s no end to the magic, beauty, and style of traditional Mexican jewelry made by native artists. Here at Mexican Silver Store, we love sharing their work and introducing it to jewelry lovers around the world.
Take a look below to see a few of our favorite pieces and click through to learn more!
Amethyst & Turquoise Flower Ring
Silver Warrior Motif Necklace
Silver & Amethyst Grapevine Necklace
Silver & Opal Necklace Set