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Heishi Beads

Updated on June 20, 2011

Heishi Beads

Heishi Beads

Heishi beads are cylindrical beads made out of shells in a consistent and uniform pattern and placed on a string.  The name Heishi comes from the Santo Domingo Pueblo Indians of New Mexico who favored the use of shells before the discovery of precious metals. Heishi simply means ‘shell’.  The history of the Heishi bead can be tracked back to nearly 6,000 B.C. when the beads where worked by hand and used as ornaments in ceremonies or to show appreciation and admiration. The rich colors and vibrant texture of Heishi Beads set them apart from other early jewelry forms. Now-a-days Heishi beads are mass-produced and amongst some of the most affordable filler beads available on the market. Indeed, the word heishi has been morphed to include many different types of inexpensive beads

View Heishi Beads in New Mexico

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center:
2401 12th St NW, Albuquerque, NM 87104, USA

get directions

Kewa Pueblo is one of the best known tribes of the southwest Indians, largely because of their skill in marketing, their jewelry and other crafts.

Making Heishi Beads

The process of making a string of heishi beads by hand requires great skill and undying patience. It starts with choosing which shells to incorporate into the necklace. The most common types available in New Mexico are olive shells, mother-of-pearl, melon shell, coral and sometimes semi-precious stones. The variation of the shells coloration all add to the uniqueness of the strand.  Choosing wrong is seldom a problem.

The second step is to cut the shells into small bits – sometimes merely a few centimeters square. The size of the squares will dictate the final size of the bead. The artisan must create larger squares for larger beads, because much of the material will be lost in the process.

The third step is to bore a hole in the center of the square with a specialized tool. Modern day tools are specifically designed to gouge away the center of a heishi bead, but before modernization artisans had to use small sharp stones and other implements to carve and cajole the shell into the desired shape. The process was tedious and strenuous.

The forth step is to loop the shells onto a string. This is where the polishing and grinding begins. While the string is intact with the square beads the shells are polished and sanded against rocks and other abrasives until they take the shape and size that is desired. Slowly they are ground down to resemble a perfectly smooth, uniform string of shells.

All together this process could take days to perform. Of course, in today’s world automation makes this process seem out dated and obsolete.  However, as an art form, the creation of heishi beads has a vibrant and rich following.


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