Jade and Greenstone
Jade, which is the color of Chalchihuitl, the water symbol of the Aztecs, was an important stone reserved for the finest pieces and was believed to have magical properties (Stierlin, 97). Jade was closely associated with life and was thought to be more precious than silver or gold. It was also symbolized or associated with a variety of supernatural realms including the earth, the underworld, vegetation, wealth, green maize, water, life, blood, rebirth, and heaven. Because jade was associated with vegetation and water, its scarcity and durability made it the ideal symbol of life and power.
Despite its symbolic significance, it was probably widely used for jewelry because it is a tough substance that can be carved and will polish beautifully (Crouch, 113). Jade is a 6.5-7 on the Mohs hardness scale making carving a arduous task. In order to sculpt jade, artisans had to fracture, saw, grind, groove, make incisions, and drill the stone.
Jade is a very scarce substance in Mexico, so the cherished stone had to be imported over vast lands. Because of its cultural antiquity, relative scarcity, cosmological significance, and inherent beauty, the elites made the importation of jade a priority (Carrasco, 65). Jadeite, which is a sodium aluminum silicate that contains iron instead of aluminum, produces jade’s green color and is the only true jade in the Aztec region. This jadeite has a limited known geological distribution located near the Motagua River in Guatemala. These people of the Motagua river region had trade associations with the Aztec people, so artisans were able to access them.
Jade was also associated with elite burials. In many parts of Mesoamerica, jade beads were placed in the mouths of the dead because it was thought that jade would facilitate the passage of the soul to the afterlife (Carrasco, 65). Jade served as the coin which paid for the admission into the next life.
Artisans used jade to produce beads, rings, nose-plugs, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, amulets and a number of other things. Because jade was seen as the material of excellence, only kings and nobles were allowed to wear jade jewelry.
The Aztec people valued turquoise because of its blue-green color that they associated with water and sky (Stierlin, 120). The stone was considered a symbol of life and was important because of its color and scarcity. It was also associated with fire, warriors, the solar year, and rulers. Many necklaces were made out of turquoise beads, and artisans often combined them with gold, shell, and amber elements to produce a delicate polychrome effect (Stierlin, 120).
As far back as 2000BC, the people of South America living in the Andes Mountains began to develop metalworking techniques that slowly travelled north along trade routes. After almost 3000 years of travel, these techniques reached Mesoamerica (Phillips, 218). Gold, silver, copper, and their alloys were the main metals used in jewelry making. Fortunately, gold, silver, and copper were all found in the region.
The Mixtecs became the best metalworkers of the Aztec era, and Aztec artisans learned from them because gold working was a highly valued skill. The Mixtecs produced such pieces of extraordinary beauty that some of the Aztec nobles hired them to work in their houses. Moctezuma’s palace in Tenochtitlan housed several goldsmiths that produced gold pieces exclusively for the elite nobles. These artisans were so highly valued that they were even exempt from paying taxes (Phillips, 223). There were many types of metal working artisans because metalwork required the labor of so many different specialists. Because multiple artisans would work on a single piece of jewelry it was too expensive for anyone but the elite to afford.
The gold work was associated with death, and the pre-columbian world had a particular fascination with death, which made gold workings highly valued. Gold and silver disks were thought to represent the sun and the moon, which were symbols that were celebrated by the Aztec “people of the sun” (Phillips, 217). Images of the gods wearing gold jewelry also heightened the appeal, so rulers, warriors, nobles, and priests hired artisans to design similar pieces for themselves.
Bone and Shell
Only great warriors were allowed to use jewelry made out of bone and shell. A lot of artisans would use bone and shell in between pieces of jade and other precious stones. The white colored discoid beads provided a unique contrast of color and shape to the stone pendants. The mixture of materials ultimately resulted in a beautifully arranged piece of jewelry.
Phillips, Charles. The Aztecs and Maya World: Everyday Life, Society and Culture in Ancient Central America and Mexico, with Over 500 Photographs and Fine Art Images. London: Lorenz Books, 2005.
Stierlin, Henri. Art of The Aztecs and Its Origins. New York, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1982.
Carrasco, David, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. Vol. 1. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Carrasco, David, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. Vol. 2. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.