Ancient Mayan and Aztec Jewelry By Shelly Culea

January 18, 2012

Jewelry in ancient Mayan culture expressed social status. Especially important to members of the royal and upper classes, jewelry and intricate headdresses had significance in celebrations and ceremonies as well as trading. Merchants wore comparatively ornate clothing and jewelry much like the nobles. Fine jewelry was also used to reward winners in spectator games. Ancient Mayan pieces generally included beads and other items crafted from bone, shells, jade, or alternate green stones. Gold, silver, bronze, and copper made occasional appearances in ancient Mayan jewelry although the culture had limited access to metals. Animal shapes, round and oblong beads, and carved faces were popular pendants.


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Aztec jewelry bears many similarities in design, style, and functionality to that of the Mayans. Although gold saw widespread use in Aztec jewelry, the people considered turquoise, jade, and specific types of feathers to be more valuable. Religious leaders and other nobles designated their level of power and influence with pendants, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, clothing ornaments, and headdresses. Certain types of jewelry also indicated military rank. Aztec artisans dedicated their time to working within their symbolism-oriented culture.


About the Author:

A jewelry designer and silversmith, Shelly Culea takes her inspiration from ancient styles seen in Mayan, Roman, and Greek cultures as well as from nature. Ms. Culea first entered the jewelry industry when she joined the Minnesota Jewelry Union in the early 1970s. Soon after, she opened Shelly Culea Jewelry & Silversmithing in Mequon, Wisconsin, where she designs and creates precious metal jewelry and hollowware on commission.


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