History of Heishi & Materials

Since 6,000 B.C, Kewa Pueblo Indians have been known to be the most proficient in the heishi making process, the oldest form of jewelry in New Mexico.Heishi (hee-shee) is a term referring to hand-made beads, usually, as necklaces, created from any natural materials such as Serpentine, Turquoise, Silver, Red Jasper, Lapis, Picture Jasper, Spiny Oyster, Mother-of-Pearl, Abalone, Soapstone, Pipestone, and Black Jet.

Traders would bring such raw materials to the Kewa Pueblo (formerly known as Santo Domingo Pueblo) from California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, and surrounding New Mexico mines.

Heishi is produced with the hands of patient and gifted craftspeople. First, the raw materials are sliced into strips. Next small squares are made by snipping off pieces with tools called “nippers”. Small holes are then drilled into the center of the square, one by one. The square pieces are strung on a wire and the time-consuming process of grinding and sanding, originally with a stone wheel, more recently with electric grinders, begins to bring each square to a bead shape. This process loses much of the original raw material. Many of the stone materials lose up to 70% of its original content.

Some pieces will chip, crack, or completely break, rendering them unusable. The size and shape of each bead is determined by the person doing the grinding and sanding, usually by hand touch. Once the desired size has been reached, the sanding begins. To bring each bead to a smooth finish, the sanding process is done in cycles, each cycle using a finer grade of sandpaper. The glossy end finish is achieved with a turning leather belt. Depending on the raw material used, it can take from two days to two weeks to hand-produce one single string of heishi beads.

The Crespin family originally made all their jewelry and heishi without any electric machinery. With the advent of electricity to the Kewa Pueblo in the 70’s, electric drimmels and grinders were introduced to the process. These tools allowed the family to improve the quality of their pieces as well as increase production. For over 35 years as jewelry artisans, Ellouise and her family take pride in each of their handcrafted, personally designed pieces.