Today, Heishi beads (also spelled Heishe) are known to be a disc or tube-shaped bead with a hole through the middle for use in jewelry, but they haven’t always been exactly that. The name originates from the Keras language of the Santo Domingo Native Americans in the American Southwest, and it translates to “shell bead”. It is pronounced “hee-shee”. Today, Heishi is more known as small tube-like beads and can be made from any material like wood or gemstones, but its history stems from shell beads found in the Gulf of California. They were traded by the Santo Domingo Native Americans in exchange for shells or goods.
Heishi beads may well be the oldest form of jewelry in North America, and most certainly is the oldest form in New Mexico. It predates the use of even metals in jewelry making, giving it a very interesting place in the history of the Southwest and North America as a whole. The manufacturing of these tiny beads is one that requires dedication, patience, and skill. First, the raw material needs to be sliced into long strips by a blade, then small pieces are nipped off into little squares with a hand tool. Next, the corners and sides are cut down and shaped as close to a circle as possible. Then, a hole is drilled in the middle for stringing. Once the rough beads are strung, a lapidary artist then turns the beads against a spinning stone wheel to slowly shape them into a circle or disc. They sand them to perfect the finish and make the material look as beautiful as possible. The beads are then ready to be made into jewelry!
Santo Domingo remains at the heart of this bead style to this day and is still the leading producer of them. They are used in jewelry designs of all types and are a mainstay in common jewelry all over the world.