The word heishi (pronounced hee-shee) means ‘shell necklace’, and is the word used to refer to the intricate strands of handmade beads of shell, and in modern times, stone. The word heishe comes from the Keres language, which is spoken by the people of the Kewa Pueblo, formerly known as the Santo Domingo Pueblo. The beads are flat, smooth discs, and have been hand-cut, hand-drilled and hand-polished. The Kewa people are considered to be masters of this very traditional artform, although heishi has roots that go even further back.
The Hohokam people are believed to have been the first to make heishi necklaces, in Arizona, approximately ten thousand years ago. Shell heishi have been discovered at ancient sites at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, dated as far back as 6000 BC.
Heishi that is created by hand is very valuable. It takes an enormous amount of time and skill to produce the tiny, uniform beads. It also uses more stone or shell to make small beads, as much material is cut away or lost in the process. Using turquoise, 60-70% of the stone can be lost to the process, and the stone used must be a hard, quality stone for beads to be cut from it, giving each bead a distinct value. Artisans from the Kewa (formerly Santo Domingo) and San Felipe Pueblos in New Mexico still create heishi by hand, and it is a highly desirable, collectible art form.
It can be difficult to tell if you are buying genuine heishi. Machine made products are often made with materials that are reconstituted or non-organic. Block or pressed stone or coral may be used. Often the holes will be a little too large, and the beads will fit imperfectly together on the strand. Hand-made heishi may have natural imperfections on stone or shell beads, but they will not be uniform or patterned imperfections.
Understanding how heishi is made can deepen your appreciation for this art form, and may also help you to identify genuine heishi.
The artist cuts the stone or shell into long thin strips, then chips them into tiny squares. A hole is drilled in each small square, and each bead is strung on a wire. The beads are then ground against a stone wheel to take the edges off and make them round. It requires great skill to create the uniform shape and size of beads that create heishi. After they are rounded, the beads are sanded with sand paper and polished with leather.
Today, the artisans producing heishi are as technically skilled, creatively blessed, and patient as their ancestors were. Shell is still used to produce single or multi-strand necklaces, as is turquoise, lapis, coral and other stones hard enough to make heishi. The shell used hundreds of years ago by the Pueblo artisans came thru trade with the Gulf coast. Today, you can still purchase strands made with historically used materials like pen shell, mother-of-pearl and spiny oyster, in uniform tiny discs, or in graduated heishi, in a multitude of patterns and styles.