American Indian Jewelry Crafts
While there was a time not too long ago when a trip to the reservations of the Southwest was the only way to see and purchase the silver and stone jewelry of Indian artists, that's not so any more. Indian jewelry is now available just about anywhere around the world, from department stores in malls to electronic shopping outlets on television and the Internet. And while shoppers who select a piece in their own backyard obviously appreciate the beauty and elegance of their purchase, there is nothing like actually watching the silversmith at work and absorbing the magic that goes into each creation.
There is also a question of authenticity involved when purchasing Indian jewelry. In this case, even a trip to the reservation doesn't guarantee a piece that will be a good solid investment. As with rugs, the question of "Indian Made" and the authenticity of that claim has bearing on appreciative value.
"Mass production" is becoming more and more common as demand grows. Many people believe Indian artists never mass produce, that each piece is unique. This would solely depend on the definition of mass production. There was a time when each step of each piece was fashioned by hand but today silver components are available, precast stone bezels, ring shanks, braided silver wire and other commercially available "aids." These aids are purchased and used by Indian artists interested in producing the maximum amount of pieces for trade. In the past non-Indian mass producers purchased machine-made components and hired Indian personnel to solder it together Once this was done the manufacturer felt just in claiming their product was, indeed, "Indian Made." This process became illegal in the 1930s to protect the integrity of Indian art. Today the mass production of jewelry created by non-Indians but in the image of native creations is prevalent everywhere.
Silver is another issue to consider when purchasing a piece of Indian jewelry. At the turn of the 20th century jewelry was fashioned from melted down Mexican pesos gained in trade. In those days the pesos were made from a fine grade of silver, but in the 1940s the grade of silver was lowered making them less suitable for use. "Nickel silver" or "German silver" is used today. It is harder and less expensive than sterling silver, but is attractive. Sterling is the most common material used in the creation of authentic Indian jewelry. Sterling silver is actually an alloy made from 925 parts of pure silver and 75 parts copper. The addition of the copper is necessary because pure silver is too soft for most jewelry making.
So, if you are buying a piece just because you like the way it looks that's fine. But if you are looking to buy a piece as an investment or heirloom, keep looking until you find something with the quality and guarantee necessary to protect your investment.
One way to possibly insure a genuine purchase is to look for a sign or other indication of a dealer's affiliation with the Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA). This organization includes dealers nationwide and is designed to "enhance and maintain the image and marketing of handmade American Indian arts and crafts." The IACA code of ethics requires works sold by these dealers to be "an honest representation of the nature and origin of American Indian arts and crafts; abiding by all federal, state, local and tribal laws which pertain to the works, artifacts and natural resources."
IACA members are not obligated to sell only handmade Indian jewelry, but they are required to tell you whether or not the piece you like is authentic and if the turquoise used has been treated or stabilized and is not a pure art stone. If a piece is found to have been misrepresented by an IACA member dealer, that dealer has an obligation to refund the money paid for the piece or apply that amount toward the purchase of another piece.
A complete list of participating IACA members is available by calling or writing the association: Indian Arts and Crafts Association, 122 La Veta NE, Suite B, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87301; phone 505.265.9149.
Hundreds of years ago the Spanish introduced horses to the native peoples of North America, and shortly thereafter metal working became part Navajo culture - first creating iron bridles for the horses and ultimately evolving into beautiful and unique works of art.
It's believed that a Navajo named Atsidi Sani learned metal work skills from people in a Mexican enclave on land that became New Mexico. He created knives and horse bits and bridles and taught his four sons, who took their work all over the country. Out of this family came a Navajo tradition of blacksmithing.
In addition to the practical aspects of metal work, decorative metal techniques with copper and silver, called "metal of the moon," also was learned from Mexican artisans. These early artistic endeavors were used to adorn clothing, moccasins, saddles and weapons. Coins were refashioned to make buttons. Casting was managed by melting down coins and either hammering the solid silver into a sheet or by pouring the hot, liquid silver into a mold of sandstone or lava rock.
Different tribes adapted the use of silver in varying techniques. The Navajo typically make pieces with the emphasis on the use of silver itself, with a single piece usually only containing a single kind of stone in a setting, be it turquoise, agate, jasper or coral. For the most part, Navajo artists do not work in inlay techniques, which place shaped pieces of stone down into the silver.
Generally, Navajo jewelry pieces are begun in the center and worked outward. Pieces tend to symmetrical, both horizontally and vertically and there is little repetition in design. Navajo pieces are decorative, and do not represent any symbolism.
Like the Navajo, the Zuni began their tradition of metal work by fashioning iron, moving on to copper and brass and then conquering silver. Zuni tribe member Lanyade learned metal work from the original Navajo smith Atsidi Sani. Lanyade then taught another smith named Balawade, who went on to teach and spread the craft. Again, these early technical skills eventually evolved into the creation of jewelry and other metal adornments, incorporating stones as well.
The Zuni are considered by many to be the premiere jewelers of all American Indian tribes, as each Zuni piece is constructed rather than cast. Zuni jewelers also are deemed to be lapidaries as well as jewelers because of designs that require precision use of cut stones. These definitive Zuni techniques include:
- Clusters - small stones, most commonly in rows, to form bracelets, belts, rings, earrings and brooches.
- Needlepoint - many tiny, carefully matched cabochons with pointed ends placed in straight or curved lines and set.
- Petit Point - often confused with or referred to as needlepoint, this style is really a modified version of needlepoint that uses teardrop-shaped stones. If the stones are teardrop shaped, the piece is petit point, not needlepoint.
- Mosaics - stones, shell or even other found objects such as nuts are arranged in random and irregular patterns. Some pieces depict animals or religious images such as kachinas, the sun face or other ritual designs.
- Channel work - stones cut, polished and inlaid in a shared bezel to create a smooth, shiny surface on a continuous plane.
In networking the metal work skills learned from Mexican craftsmen, the Navajo Atsidi Sani taught the Zuni Lanyade. Lanyade made a trip to Hopiland to make and sell his silver work. While he had no intention of sharing his trade secrets, his Hopi host Sikyatala did observe and became proficient enough to sell his work.
For a long time the Hopi would simply copy the work of Navajo. Later, Dr. Harold Colton and his wife Mary, founders of the Museum of Northern Arizona at Flagstaff, encouraged the Hopi to develop their own techniques and designs. In 1947 classes were organized to promote the craft and out of this experience came the development of original design and the technique of silver overlay and matte black background, trademarks of Hopi silver work.
Hopi work originates in the mind of the artist and can be vast and varied, from realistic depictions of kachinas to stylized designs that include the forces of nature and elements from the world around us. Purchasing a piece directly from the silversmith is the best way to learn the motivation behind a piece.
Hopi work generally includes a hallmark to identify the artist, sometimes their initials, a symbol of their clan or some other symbol. The study of Hopi hallmarks is an interesting sidebar to appreciating Indian silver.