What Are Heishi Beads?

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Heishi beads (alternate spelling heishe beads; pronounced hee-shee) are a type of disc-shaped or short tubular beads. Heishi is possibly the oldest form of jewelry in North America. The people who are most expert in the manufacture of heishi, and its earliest manufacturers, are the Pueblo Indians. The name heishi means "shell" and seashells are the chief material used; today, the Pueblo people also use some precious stones to make their beads.

The Origins of Heishi

  • Today, heishi beads are mass-produced in many countries and from many different materials, from natural shell to metal to plastic. The originators of these beads were the Pueblo Indians of Santo Domingo and San Felipe. In previous centuries, these people traded for their materials via the Gulf of California, obtaining many different kinds of shells to convert into beads.

Heishi Materials

  • Beads marketed as heishi can be made from virtually any material. The Pueblo Indians, however, historically worked in shells like melon shells, spiny oysters, light and dark olive shells and mother-of-pearl. Contemporary Pueblo heishi may also be made from precious and semi-precious stones, such as turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, serpentine and jet.

Techniques

  • To make heishi beads, the artisan first selects appropriate materials. The shells, stones or other materials are cut into strips using a cutting wheel. The strips are then cut down further into small squarish fragments. These pieces are drilled in the middle, traditionally with a tiny pointed stone. The fragments are strung on fine wire. The whole string of beads is then ground down using an abrasive grinding stone until they become uniform in shape. The beads may be sanded by hand to make them smoother. They are then washed and left in the sun to dry. The result is a smooth, serpentine string of beads, uniform and symmetrical. Depending on the thickness of the original materials, the heishi beads may be disk shaped or cylindrical.

Heishi from Africa

  • A different kind of heishi-type beads are crafted using a similar technique in some African nations. The materials differ somewhat; they may include vegetable material such as husks or shells and thick pieces of ostrich eggshell. The use of this technique in Africa dates back 30,000 years.

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