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Nineteenth-century Navajo and Pueblo silver jewelry

- an excerpt from an article at LookSmart.com/Magazine Antiques


Anthropologists and others have frequently expressed more interest in Navajo and Pueblo pottery, weaving, and even basketry than jewelry. Commentary usually focuses on the skill of the Indian silversmiths, armed only with rough tools and improvised forges [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. In the early 1880s Washington Matthews, a surgeon in the United States Army, reported to the recently created Bureau of American Ethnology that "the appliances and processes of the smith are much the same among the Navajo as among the Pueblo Indians." But he found the Navajo silversmiths "quite fertile in design."


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In 1892 the writer and traveler Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859-1928) summarized the prevailing attitude toward Indian enterprise:

Both Navajos and Pueblos are admirable silversmiths, and make ali their own jewelry. Their silver rings, bracelets, earrings, buttons, belts, dress pins, and bridle ornaments are very well fashioned with a few rude tools. The Navajo smith works on a flat stone under a tree; but the Pueblo artificer has generally a bench and a little forge in a room of his house.

The approving tone of these remarks is significant in the context of the Southwest in the second half of the nineteenth century. The United States had only acquired possession of the region from Mexico in 1848, and the territorial government was anxious to implant American values in an alien society. The Navajo in particular presented a problem, for their attempts to resist the influx of settlers brought military retaliation by the United States Army between 1864 and 1868. This led to the defeat of the Navajos and their incarceration at Fort Sumner in the New Mexico territory. After they returned from internment in 1868, silversmithing was one of the crafts encouraged by the authorities. The facility with which both the Navajo and Pueblo Indians took up the craft was nothing short of wondrous, and they quickly made it their own. Their first instructors in silverwork were itinerant Mexican blacksmiths whom they encountered at forts, trading posts, and local settlements. Later silversmiths were hired for the same purpose by the government.

Precedents for Pueblo shell and stone jewelry can be traced to the ancient inhabitants of the region, including the Anasazi and Hohokam, who had vanished long before the advent of the Spanish. With the Spanish came silver ornaments on their horse tackle and clothing. Coinand German-silver jewelry from neighboring tribes in the Rocky Mountains or southern plains regions could be found at trade fairs. Those Indians, in turn, had the jewelry from fur traders from the eastern United States and Canada.

Oral history has yielded the names of the earliest known Indian silversmiths, with most sources crediting Atsidi Sani (d. 1918) as the first Navajo silversmith. He taught many others, who spread the craft to the Zuni, Hopi, and Rio Grande pueblos(6) during the late 1860s and into the 1870s. In this seminal period, jewelry was simple: single crescent (called naja) pendants, occasionally terminating in the shape of two human hands; plain band rings; twisted wire or carinated bracelets; and cast-silver bracelets [ILLUSTRATION FOR PLATE IV OMITTED]. Slightly later, hollow beads appeared, and stones were set into bezels with notched or saw-tooth edges. These stones were broadly spaced on concha jewelry.

Despite the relative crudeness of the tools available to the first Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths, their earliest ventures into jewelry making were typically well conceived . In most cases coins were melted into ingots and then hammered into sheets in preparation for casting. Silversmiths cut their molds from soft sandstone or tufa, and, after casting, the decoration was impressed with cold chisels and files or created with simple incised lines and rocker-engraving. Buttons and beads were fashioned around round-pointed dies. A pleasing asymmetry developed during these first decades of jewelry making. The patina varied from bluish to yellowish white depending on whether Mexican pesos or United States dollar coins had been malted down for use. Liquid rock salt was used as a blanching agent, and before sandpaper and emery paper, the smiths used ashes, sand, and stones to smooth the surface.

After 1880 Indian jewelery makers developed a repertory of handmade dies to create stamped or repousse decorative elements (see PI. VI). However, these innovations were not universal, and many Indian silversmiths continued to use the same rudimentary tools until 1900, when a new wave of materials and tools altered the creation of silver jewelry.

The earliest jewelry made by the Indians for their own use consisted most frequently of rings, buttons, bracelets, conchas strung on leather belts, and pendants of najas or crosses on necklaces of round or fluted beads. Early rings and concha disks appear to be copied from the trade jewelry of the Plains Indians. The concha belts of this first phase lacked buckles, and the disks were usually more round than oval, with six to eight conchas threaded onto the leather belt through diamond-shaped cuts in the silver. Buttons were fluted or domed. The first common bracelet patterns consisted of flattened, hammered, and engraved disks, or a silver band shaped into ridged, or triangular, keeled forms. Slender bracelets could be enlarged by joining several bands with twisted wire. By the mid-1870s cast-silver bracelets appeared, which were usually wider than their predecessors. Originally, naja pendants were probably based on Spanish colonial bridle ornaments and may originally have been derived from a Moorish crescent design. The naja became a prominent fixture on Navajo silver necklaces. Cross-shaped pendants enjoyed more favor with the Pueblo, although both tribes made them. Between 1880 and 1910 crosses with one or two crossbars were most often worn singly on a bead necklace. The early designs were derived from crosses traded by the French, including the double-barred cross of Lorraine. The Indians attached their own symbolism to the cross, which represented the morning star to the Navajo and the dragonfly to the Pueblo.

Despite technical limitations, the first generation of Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths devised a surprisingly formal and interesting vocabulary of design. In response to queries from observers like Matthews, the silversmiths claimed that they executed their works based on a conception of the finished product rather than a preliminary drawing. They emphasized such features as mass, proportion, and repetitive patterns composed of lines and curves. Experimentation brought elaboration in design, but simplicity and a sense of balance in decoration remained. Stones were added in increasing numbers by the late 1880s, with turquoise and garnets favored. Repousse work gained in popularity because it increased the sculptural effect. In the 1890s earrings made from wire hoops or tab stones were given dangle shapes, and increasing numbers of stones accentuated surface design.

- For the entire article- LookSmart.com/Magazine Antiques

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