Vintage western jewelry has a longstanding appeal with free spirits, native peoples, and jewelry lovers for its uncommon materials and connections to the natural world. The southwestern jewelry trade has a storied history rooted in regional conflict and rich native heritage, making it historically significant in a way that accessories often aren't. Take a look at the different kinds of vintage western jewelry you can find and how this industry came to thrive nearly a hundred years ago.
Southwestern Jewelry and Indigenous Culture
Following the procurement of native lands for the development of the United States' National Park System and the development of a transcontinental railroad, many indigenous people began integrating themselves into the tourist economy by selling goods and wares that connected to their native heritage. By 1900, native jewelers had begun transitioning from selling silver and stone jewelry only to their tribe members to selling to tourists and visitors who had come to their region. Thus, the southwestern jewelry style was born, and while non-native jewelers have since taken up the practice, there are still significant indigenous jewelers who create these works of art and sell them to this day.
Nine Antique and Vintage Western Jewelry Styles
Generally, southwestern jewelry shares an easily envisioned style typified by bright blues, rich corals, and shinning silver, and this rings true across different types of jewelry and accessories. However, specific values and styles do vary from piece to piece, meaning you might want to familiarize yourself with the market of the type of jewelry you like to wear the most.
Cuff bracelets are a particularly simple piece of jewelry, often created out of silver and embedded with one or two large natural stones in the center. These cuffs can be worn around the wrists or around arms, and authentic vintage pieces can be worth quite a bit. For instance, one signed Zuni sterling silver cuff bracelet was sold at auction for $300.
The stereotypical oversized belt buckles that are often worn today first gained popularity during the height of Hollywood's western media campaign in the 1940s. Today, western belt buckles aren't exclusively worn by ranch hands or rough riders, and you can find beautiful examples of buckles from the 1970s for between $25-$200 on average. For example, a vintage Colt Revolvers trademark belt buckle is listed for about $30 in one online auction.
Western watch fobs have actually been actively used since at least the 19th century, with there being a significant market for antique watch fobs which exhibit unique pastoral scenes and native figures. These decorative accessories encompass a variety of styles, from horses to fobs emblematizing figures like the infamous Hanging Judge, Isaac C. Parker. These fobs can be worth a few hundred dollars, especially antique examples. For instance, a 1909 Wild West Show fob is listed for nearly $300 in one auction.
Cuff links became an integral part of the western costume during the height of the wild west phenomenon. With country western music on the rise in the late 1940s and Hollywood westerns taking over screens around the world, brightly decorated cufflinks were designed to pin men's and women's western shirts in a marriage of function and beauty. These pieces were designed with typical western motifs like rope twists, horseshoes, and belt buckle shapes, and are rather low-cost. For example, a vintage pair of bucking horse brass cuff links from the 1940s is priced at just a little over $15.
Bolo ties are considered one of the most identifiable western accessories and were first adopted into everyday dress in the late-1940s. These unique pieces of neck ornamentation feature a decorated clasp that sits at the base of the throat and is fixed using a cord fastener. These clasps were made out of a variety of materials including porcelain, agate, onyx, and sterling silver. In general, given their niche audience, vintage bolo ties aren't that expensive. You can purchase bolo ties for under $20, like this vintage turquoise and silver bolo tie.
In addition to the iconic bolo tie, western jewelry style includes other forms of tie jewelry such as tie pins, tacks, and bars which are embedded with natural stones from the American southwest, like turquoise. Vintage southwestern tie jewelry, although popular during the peak of the wild west phenomenon, is more difficult to find. However, you can easily find modern interpretations of these accessories from big box jewelry stores or independent sellers.
Earrings are an ancient form of jewelry that have been found in hundreds of different ancient cultures from around the world. Native Americans have been incorporating symbolic natural materials into their earrings for centuries, and their craftsmanship is still considered some of the highest in terms of western accessories and will cost about as much as your average semi-precious earring will. For example, a vintage pair of Navajo opal and turquoise butterfly earrings was sold in one auction for $150.
Much the same as with southwestern earrings, rings have been worn by humans for centuries. Of course, style fluctuations make some types of rings more valuable than others. Southwestern rings are still incredibly popular due to their simple designs. Their unpolished and rough textures give the pieces a rugged, weather-worn appeal. Large-stoned rings were particularly popular during the 1960s and 1970s for those who enjoyed southwestern jewelry, and these examples cost significantly more than their smaller counterparts. For instance, one mid-sized vintage turquoise ring is listed for nearly $75 in one auction.
Southwestern necklaces have a strong design influence taken from Native American apparel. Such motifs as the squash bloom were incorporated into heavily beaded necklaces that were later sold to tourists. These designs still impact southwestern jewelry today, and authentic vintage western necklaces, particularly those from renowned indigenous craftsmen, can be worth a few hundred dollars. For example, one Navajo T. Singer necklace was recently sold for $450.
How to Buy Antique & Vintage Western Jewelry
Given the highly variable nature of the jewelry market, it's difficult to make a firm assessment of the costs associated with buying antique and vintage western jewelry. However, you can absolutely find low-cost and luxurious choices. If you're interested in buying authentic pieces, you'll want to look at antique stores, auctions, and online retailers like Etsy and ebay. However, if you're looking for a specific piece, the easiest way to find it is by buying reproductions from sellers like High Desert Creations.
The Natural Charm of Southwestern Jewelry Is Timeless
For hundreds of years, cultures have been taking the raw materials of the natural world and working them into accessories and adornments, either for spiritual purposes or for beauty. This long history speaks to what a good investment antique and vintage southwestern jewelry can be; simply put, it'll never go out of style.