Native American Silver Jewelry Making
Navajo Silversmith, Sitting Next To A Fire, Shaping Silver, 1915.
(Courtesy of Library of Congress)
Metalworking by Native Americans of the southwest has a relatively short history. Methods for working several types of metals were introduced in the region comprising primarily New Mexico and Arizona by the Spanish who arrived there about 1540.
Although local Indians served as laborers for the Spanish blacksmiths and undoubtedly observed their techniques, the earliest Navajo silver pieces known date to about 1860; their cast iron jewelry dates back perhaps a few decades earlier. Prior to that time they made jewelry exclusively from shells, bone and semi-precious stones.
They mined turquoise, a favored stone, locally and traded some of it to other tribes, some located as far away as the Pacific coast and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Jewelry-making was a family pursuit, and some families continue the tradition today. Artifacts brought by the Spanish from Europe (some of which bore Moorish characteristics) had initially a strong influence on the Indian metalwork. They copied buttons, belts, iron bits for horses, knives, etc. Some early decorative pieces were made from brass.
Beginning around 1880 many objects were made from silver coins of the U.S.A. and silver pesos of Mexico. The latter were used exclusively after the use of the former became illegal. With the installation of railroad lines, the demands of tourists for jewelry of Indian tribes began to be felt. The sale of jewelry to tourists was aided by the establishment of trading posts beginning at about 1890. As a consequence of an expanding growth in production of jewelry, the quality of most pieces being sold eventually was lower, an effect noted as early as the 1920s.
The tools, small dies and stamps employed by the Southwestern Indian silversmiths were of the types introduced in the region by the early Spanish settlers and employed by Spanish artisans for generations thereafter. Wagon springs and other items of high carbon steel served as materials for their dies.
Today, drill rod and a variety of pre-annealed high carbon steels are readily available, but salvaged steel is still one of the best inexpensive sources. For making dies and stamps, they use old steel files broken into desired lengths (usually 4 to 8 cm).
The metal pieces are heated in a forge or in the flame of an acetylene gas torch until they become a cherry red color, and then they quickly submerge them in wood ashes or in powdered lime where they cool slowly for eight to twelve hours.
The steel, annealed in this way, is soft enough to be filed into desired shapes. Then the resulting tools are hardened and tempered. The hardening is accomplished by heating the pieces again to a cherry red color and quenching them quickly in oil or water. Tempering is necessary to overcome the brittleness of hardened steel, so that the tools made from it will not crack when struck by a hammer.
Tempering is done by sanding and polishing the hardened steel until shiny white metal appears and by slowly heating the piece by a forge or welding torch until the surface becomes a certain color. As heating progresses, the surface color passes through the following sequence: yellow, straw, bronze, red, blue and gray.
For dies to be used on silver or gold, heating to a stage between dark straw and bronze-blue is sufficient. When the desired color is reached the hot die is immersed quickly in oil.
Silversmiths employ dies and stamps made in this way to make impressions on cold annealed silver, brass and gold with the use of a hammer and anvil. Southwestern Indian silversmiths continue to use a heat resistant volcanic stone called tufa for making molds for silver casting. They use the same material for both casting silver ingots and heavy silver wire for making heavy silver jewelry.
The mold is made in two halves with a flat joining face on each half. In the case of cast jewelry, they carve its form into the two halves and introduce a sprue to channel the molten metal into the mold. They melt down silver coins, scrap sterling silver and silver filings and pour the molten metal into the mold where it cools and solidifies quickly.
A sterling silver belt buckle would be cast in tufa. To obtain silver sheet, silver is first cast into ingots and then hammered and forged on a steel block or on an anvil. The other parts were also cast in tufa and forged into shape. See below photo of a 1900 Navajo tufa belt buckle.
Traditionally, the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo Indian silversmiths employed a solder consisting of an alloy of brass (copper and zinc) and silver. They did their soldering over a charcoal fire using a blowpipe to intensify the production of heat. They employ an alloy that is prepared and also commercial silver solder and an acetylene-air flame.
Silversmiths melted silver in a crucible in the hot coals of a forge with forced air supplied by bellows and used either a forge or an acetylene-air torch. Borax in water was a particularly good flux, because it kept the work clean during soldering.
The early Native American silversmiths commonly rubbed their silver jewelry with leather and with wood ashes to obtain a high luster finish. But, after years of use, the shiny surface of their jewelry became worn, displaying a satiny low-luster finish. It is this soft patina that silversmiths in the Southwest, especially the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni now try to produce. To get this low luster they use files first, then sandpaper and finally a fine steel wool.
Generally, one does not find shells (for example, abalone) and semi-precious stones (for example, turquoise, coral, jet) in silver mountings in the earliest examples of Southwestern jewelry.
But at about 1880, shell and turquoise began to be used in this manner. A shell or a stone was held in place by a rim or bezel made from thin forged silver sheet pushed around its perimeter.
Following its introduction to this use, turquoise has been employed in most Indian silver jewelry made in this region. Collectors of Indian jewelry would seek jewelry pieces made with turquoise from the Southwestern region, which is found in various shades in the blue-greens. Some contemporary pieces contain imported pale blue Persian turquoise.
For mounting stones, some jewelry makers employed bezels made from forged silver sheet cut into narrow strips, generally about 3 mm wide and 1 mm thick. The strip was soldered onto a forged silver sheet backing, and the stone is then set by working the silver around the upper edge of the stone with the use of a hammer, a technique that is not employed by present-day regional silversmiths.
In recent times, many silversmiths preferred to use manufactured bezels, which are sufficiently soft and thin to be worked easily. Bezels are usually embellished by filed marks and impressions made by stamping and appear similar to the thick cast silver bezels of the early South-western pieces. One can find stones fastened by means of glue without bezels in much present-day Southwestern jewelry, but many believe that bezels are a more dependable means for holding stones securely for a long time.
Southwestern jewelry is characterized by simple square, oval, round, triangular and rectangular designs. Animal and plant motifs were used, as were Hopi and Pueblo Indian pottery designs. A pomegranate flower, commonly called 'squash blossom' in the region, was used on necklaces.
Many designs have a Spanish-Moorish influence, such as large discs or ovals embossed into a shell form. These embossed designs were used in buckles. Oftentimes a series of shell forms were strung on leather stripping forming what was called a concha belt. Concha belts were characterized by a larger buckle different in design from the shell forms, much like the one below.
The Spanish-Moorish influence can also be seen in the crescent or half-moon shape of the naja, a silver pendant on the squash blossom necklace and as a decoration along with shell shapes on bridles. The image below is an example of a naja made with the Spanish-Moorish influence in 1900.
Wright, M. N. Hopi Silver: The History and Hallmarks of Hopi Silversmithing. 2003.
Adair, J. Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths. 1989.
Frank, L. and Holbrook,, M.J. Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest, 1868-1930. 1997.