Antique American Indian Silver Jewelry
By Bruce Bernstein former Curator at the Laboratory of Anthropology and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe.
While the art of Indian-crafted silver has flourished in the 20th century, all Indian jewelers can trace their art to a Navajo named Atsidi Saani, who learned blacksmithing at Fort Defiance, Arizona, in the 1850s. (It is generally believed that the Spanish colonizers of the Southwest purposely kept the techniques of metal working from the region's native peoples.)
When Navajo people returned to their beloved mesas and canyons in 1868, following the four-year internment at Bosque Redondo, their new, more settled way of living led to many changes. Among other things, as they were no longer nomadic, they had greater opportunity to learn from each other. The People had long admired and used metal ornaments and horse equipment. They had used brass and copper wire to create bracelets and coins to fashion buttons. Atsidi Saani applied his metal working techniques, as appropriate, to silver, and he began to teach others.
Tools were crude. Smiths improvised and created their own crucibles, bellows, and emery paper. A smith may have only had a hammer and a piece of scrap railroad track for an anvil. Silver coins were melted or annealed into use. The Mexican peso soon gained new favor among smiths because it had a higher silver content than American coins.
Repoussé tools made by a machinist in the 1950s using pieces of scrap steel and automobile transmission parts.
By the 1890s, traders took advantage of the new market with silversmiths and began selling tools and silver slugs.
Silver jewelry also served as barter on the Reservation where money was practically non-existent. Traders took silver and turquoise jewelry as collateral, without giving a specific value to the piece, and the customer's purchase debt was secured by the jewelry. Any pawn unclaimed after the agreed period of not less than six months was considered "dead" and the trader could sell it.
After 1950, the use of pawn as collateral was prohibited on the Reservation; however, it continues to exist today on the borders of the Reservation.Older Indian jewelry (1880-1900) may appear crude by today's standards. Collectors of these pieces look for raised designs created with files and chisels and not repoussé.
(Repoussage is the art of working the back of the metal, usually with a hammer or stamp, producing raised surfaces such as the rounded concha). As the smiths acquired better tools, they produced more elaborately decorated pieces.
After 1950, the use of pawn as collateral was prohibited on the Reservation; however, it continues to exist today on the borders of the Reservation.Older Indian jewelry (1880-1900) may appear crude by today's standards. Collectors of these pieces look for raised designs created with files and chisels and not repoussé. (Repoussage is the art of working the back of the metal, usually with a hammer or stamp, producing raised surfaces such as the rounded concha). As the smiths acquired better tools, they produced more elaborately decorated pieces.
By 1899, the Fred Harvey Company was supplying sheet metal and pre-cut, polished turquoise to smiths through the trading posts. The smiths then sold back to Harvey a supply of cheaply-made souvenir jewelry for tourists.
Soon, the Harvey Company was commissioning Indian-style machine-made jewelry. Indians may or may not have been employed for the handwork on these assembly-line pieces. Other manufacturers followed, producing earrings, bracelets, rings, brooches, pins, money clips, commemorative spoons and other trinkets. Collectors of this souvenir jewelry--often called "Harvey House" or "workshop jewelry"--look for its machined-tooled precision and uniformity, affectation of an Indian style, and relative delicate lines. The pieces were generally small, sized to sell cheaply. Turquoise, when used, was treated or coated to harden and enhance color. Designs were usually stamped, and common motifs were thunderbirds, lightning, and bows and arrows.
The differences between authentic and imitation silverwork are subtle, a condition exacerbated by the tendency of smiths to copy what is the most successful or profitable, and to lower their standards for tourists who are often looking for cheap mementos.
By the early 1900s silver jewelry continued to change, reflecting significant advances in tools and technology. Repoussé improved as the smiths learned to temper and harden their tools. Also, stamp work increased as jewelers acquired the technology and supplies to make the stamps. This form of working the metal from the front was quickly adapted as a favored technique to accentuate repoussage or to stand alone.
One example of the evolving aesthetic, or the way the finished silver should look, is the degree of polish on the piece. Currently, silversmiths prefer a high polish, whereas silversmiths of 50 or 100 years past lacked the electric buffing wheel. The older fashion left some areas tarnished, or darkened, to enhance details.
Perhaps the best advice for prospective collectors is always to buy from reputable dealers and to ask plenty of questions about the materials and techniques used, and about the jeweler. Today, almost all silver is signed or marked, or the maker is identifiable. Look for the mark, and keep in mind that in New Mexico, it is illegal to proffer non-Indian made jewelry as Indian-made. A reputable dealer should be able to provide proof of authenticity in writing. If there is any hesitation or avoidance, find another dealer.
Many buyers think they should shun treated turquoise. However, much turquoise used today is treated in some way to strengthen it. In its untreated state, the stone is porous, often mottled, and marked with imperfections or inclusions. There are various types of treatments, including coating, dyeing, infusing with hardening agents, and even reconstituting ground turquoise. Ask the seller if, and how, the turquoise is treated. Obviously, collectors will weigh the advantages of different types of treatments.
Finally, collecting Indian silver should always be enjoyable. It is still a very affordable art, and collectors enjoy a wide range of styles and designs. Learning about the history, techniques, materials and the makers offers insights into cultures that are often trivialized by our mass society. A fine, well-made piece of silver has universal appeal; it wears well anywhere, anytime and with almost any style of dress. Buy what you love and wear it often.