When chronicling the significance of jewelry to ancient American civilization, the focus is placed mainly on the violent exploitation of the indigenous peoples by the avaricious Spanish conquistadors in their pursuit for gold. While documenting the Spanish pillaging of other cultures’ precious stones is imperative to grasping the severity of such crimes, the legacy of precolonial jewelry should not be confined to the atrocities committed in order to obtain it. A common overgeneralization is that indigenous civilizations were simply uninterested in gold, when in actuality certain Mesoamerican societies revered gold and other valuable metals. Aztec, Mayan, and Incan jewelry denoted such statuses as social class and religious affiliation, and it was used to create battle armor, artwork, and many other marvels. By exploring the similarities and distinctions between these three kingdoms’ relationships to jewelry, the originators of these treasures are finally given their due recognition.
Mesoamerican jewelry comprised a multitude of different gems, but certain classifications’ presence varied according to region. The Mayans were blessed with a bounty of jade, which was sacred to them and was heavily utilized to build rings, earplugs, and headdresses. Jade became so coveted that it grew to be one of the Mayan civilization’s main exports. The Incan empire was famous for their plentiful gold, and the most grand testament to their reputation is the Temple of the Sun in their prosperous capital of Cuzco. Incans assembled gold-plated rings, necklaces, crowns, and other status symbols from what they christened as “tears wept by the sun.” Aztec jewelry included jade and gold, as well as an assortment of other materials like silver and moonstone. With the addition of organic components like feathers and shells, the Aztecs produced exceptionally colorful and ornate pieces worn by citizens of all backgrounds.
Extravagant jewelry was made mostly exclusive to Aztec, Mayan, and Incan nobility, as such opulence not only signified their elevated social standing but also served as evidence of their closeness to the gods. The Incans wore their abundance of gold in reverence to their sun god Inti, and since the king was regarded as the son of God, he shone brightest by wearing more gold than any of his subjects. Aztec art, which encompassed jewelry, was reserved for the ruling classes, who wore gemstones to a variety of national and religious celebrations. Jewel fragments were added to clay or wood backgrounds to create mosaics, and the crystallized animal shapes often held religious importance. While Mayan aristocracy was stringent in disallowing lower classes from wearing jewelry, slight exceptions were made for the craftsmen who constructed such fashionable works of art by hand.
When not barred by social class or relegated solely to religious symbolism, Mesoamerican jewelry had other fascinating uses. Having lived in the Aztec empire for thousands of years, the Mezcala people masqueraded as the gods with jeweled masks and fashioned stone icons that were centerpieces of spiritual ceremonies that were often intended as divine offerings. Incan warriors and craftsmen were armored with chest aprons and shin protectors, which came in either copper or gold depending on the wearer's social status. In that very same region, the assimilated Ichmas and Chimus’s adept metalwork produced a plethora of fashion rings, sterling silver necklaces, and earrings. Jeweled earplugs were the most common fashion statement enjoyed by Mayans of all genders, which then diverged to the popularity of nose plugs among men and lip plugs among women, respectively.
These ancient American civilizations’ distinct jewelry embellishments represent the progression of decorating styles between all three of them. Prior to finding metal, the Mayans adorned jewelry with natural items like feathers, claws, and most of all, jaguar teeth, which held profound religious significance. Similarly, Incan jewelry was composed of llama leather and braided fiber and ornamented with seashells. Lastly, Aztec jewelry was famously lavish, and complementing such vibrancy were the flower-shaped tinkling bells that descended from necklaces.
Changing the narrative surrounding Mesoamerican jewelry centers the indigenous peoples who designed them and thus makes them active agents in their own history. These cultures’ awe-inspiring artifacts have endured centuries of colonialism to continue providing insight into empires of a bygone era. Continued archaeological findings on these ancient civilizations are bound to uncover such mysteries as their interpretations of wedding bands or the amount of sterling silver rings produced by the Aztecs’ diversity of metals and gems. Modern-day Americans are beginning to learn more about the societies that preceded them, and honoring the artistic innovation of centuries past is key to comprehending such an exhaustive history.