Monday, May 18, 2009

Navajo Silver Jewelry

The first southwestern Native American Indians to develop the art of silversmithing is attributed to the Navajo. Their earliest jewelry works were influenced by the plateros, or silversmiths from Mexico and from the Spaniards in the nearby regions. These early works were made from a variety of American or Mexican coins and ingots that were fabricated with the most simple and rudimentary tools. The tools were, for the most part, limited to endeavors of stamping, engraving, filing, and chiseling. In addition, the earliest Navajo silver jewelry makers had been taught the art of blacksmithing and developed some skill with the tools of that trade. Once learned, these techniques of the craft were taught to others in the tribe. All of their early silver jewelry work dating back to the 1850's was hammered by hand and the finished products were rather crude and simple when compared to works of the current day. With the introduction, in the twentieth century, of different forms of metal sheet and wire, designs began to take on a more detailed and finished look. The tools and methods used by the Navajo today are quite advanced from the earliest handmade tools used by the first silversmiths. Today, with the availability of different power and mass produced tools, the making of silver jewelry has become much more efficient and varied in design.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, some of the Navajo began to create their southwestern silver jewelry by the process of metal casting. This technique was accomplished by carving a design into a split piece of sandstone or volcanic tufa to produce a mold into which the molten metal was poured. Once the metal had cooled and was removed from the mold, a new and unique design was created. After several castings were completed using the same mold, it would wear out and a new one had to be carved. The use of these different hand carved molds did allow a particular silversmith to be creative in using his own imagination to create a finished product quite different and unique. This technique of using hand carved casting molds to create silver jewelry designs is still used by many present day Navajo silversmiths in creating their traditional and contemporary designs.

Current Navajo designs range from items made with clusters of small bezel set stones (more typical of the Zunis) to items made with larger single stones. The predominate stone of choice is turquoise but many other semi-precious stones are used including lapis, malachite, onyx and opal. Red coral is often combined with turquoise to give a stunning contrast of colors. Fine examples of hand stamped work, with or without stones, are also characteristic of the Navajo styles and designs. The concho belt is a good example of quality stamping work in which a series of hand stamped ovals, squares or rectangles are strung on a lather strap to create a truly southwestern jewelry design. Stamped bolo ties are another popular example of this artistic technique. Whichever design or technique you might prefer, you can rest assured that Navajo silver jewelry is as good as it gets when you're looking for the finest creations in design, quality and craftsmanship.

Article submitted by Randall Wilson, artist and owner of Artistic Southwestern Jewelry

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