Jewelry In the Aztec Empire
“They saw such a number of jewelers and slabs and plates of gold and Chalchihuites (greenstones) and other great riches, that they were quite carried away and did not know what to say about such wealth” (Young-Sanchez, 103)
“Nowhere in the world could a smith have done better” (Phillips, 217)
In 1519, Hernan Cortes and his men wrote these words about the Aztec jewels they arrived in the city of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec Civilization began when a militant tribe moved into the Valley of Mexico around 1325 A.D. The empire grew into a complex network of marketplaces, in which Tenochtitlan was at the center. Among the many achievements of the Aztecs, the magnificence of their jewelry stood out to Cortes. Unfortunately, the Mexican jewelry that was so highly admired by the Europeans, and intrigued their motivation for conquest, has left so few traces (Young-Sanchez, 103). This scarcity is partially due to Europeans who could not see past the monetary value of the goods. Aztec gold and silver were melted down, which claimed most pieces sent back to Europe. Most of the surviving jewels have come from burial and other archaeological sites that remained hidden from the Spanish.
Despite the loss, archaeologist have discovered much from documented pictures and writings, and from the findings of some of the finest pieces in tombs. Aztec jewelry was highly influenced from the Mixtec, which were indigenous Mesoamerican people. The materials for the jewelry: jade, rock crystal, obsidian, amethyst, opal, jasper, onyx, turquoise, and other precious stones and metals were given to the Aztecs from the Mixtec as tribute (Crouch, 108). Along with the stones, a lot of the Mixtec metalworkers came to live in Tenochtitlan, and their techniques were dispersed among Aztec artisans. The Aztecs became very skilled, and reached the highest proficiency in working with semi-precious stones. Though the jewelry was very diverse in appearance, the pieces were made in a single style throughout most of the Mesoamerican region. Scholars call this the South Mexican International Style (Phillips, 220). This style has three distinct features:
- Decorative elements that were similar to the codices painted by the Mixtecs
- Highly technical metalwork, made by artisans, who were experts in the lost-wax casting method
- Designs that combined multiple types of metals and stones or had pendants
Though the pieces were very stylistic and appealing to the eye, the artisans carefully created the jewelry to display symbolic meaning. The Jewelry was thought to have certain qualities including:
- The association with ancestor worship
- Magical significance
- Religious significance that connected mortals to certain gods
- Hierarchical significance
- Indication of wealth and social status
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.
Young-Sanchez, Margaret. An Aztec Gold Warrior Figurine. 29/30 ed. President and Fellows of Harvard College Acting through the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 1996. 102-126.
Crouch, Donald. Stone and Metal Jewelry of Pre-Columbian Middle America. 3rd ed. Vol. 11. Cetnral States Archaeological Societies, 1964. 106-113.