Tag Archives: Jewelry

Native American Jewelry – Navajo Phase 2

Phase 2 or the second period of Navajo silversmithing is generally thought of as being between 1910 -1940. This period is characterized by the exertion of outside forces such as commercialization, exploitation and economics almost dealing a death blow to the Navajo traditions.

The second period is when the economy out side of the reservation became increasingly relevant to the Navajo people. When prices for the products they sold, wool, sheep and jewelry declined in the outside economy it resulted in a lower price being offered to them.

This period was also the beginning of a growing tourism industry. By 1915 Fred Harvey would open hotels in Gallup, Flagstaff, Albuquerque and other cities along the Santa Fe railroad. The growing mass of tourists demanded inexpensive Indian-made curios. New businesses opened in these cities to fulfill the demand and needs of the tourists. These new businesses also provided the Navajo people with new tools, materials and techniques. In the past this access to new tools and materials would have inspired the Navajo smiths to create new designs and techniques but in this period the demands of commercialization and exploitation squashed the expression of authentic designs.

Needing to provide for their families many Navajo silversmiths were forced to go to work in commercial shops. Inside of these shops the Navajo’s were forced to make forms that were outside their norm. Items like boxes, letter openers, ashtrays, combs and more were being made. The benchwork made during this time can be characterized by their redundant forms, repetitive design and substantial decoration.  This jewelry was adorned with non-authentic designs such as bows and arrows, swastikas, thunderbirds and other. The Navajo tradition of simplicity of design and proportion would give way to commercialization and it’s result was technical and artistically inferior silverwork.

Match book cover representing nontraditional items

Match book cover representing nontraditional items

Perhaps the most significant development of this “railroad curio” phase is the misrepresentations that were purposely promoted by the curio industry. False stereotypes were propagated because of the lack of quality and artistic style of the jewelry they were coerced to make. The majority of traditional pieces created during this time period were made by Navajos who lived far away from these commercial centers. These items of jewelry reflect the Navajo’s traditional sense of harmony and order. The number of these traditional pieces made were few as there existed no market for them among the tourists. As the nation entered the depression the market for tourist curios began to dry up and silver production began to diminish. The metalworking tradition among the Navajo was about to face it’s most dire threat to it’s continuity.


Non Native Symbols such as Cactus and Stick Figure

Silversmithing was not the only part of Navajo life to be affected by the depression. A lack of employment opportunities along with the governments forced reduction of sheep herds threatened the very nature of Navajo economic tradition and culture. During these hard times Navajo people began to pawn their jewelry more and more frequently than before. As the depression drug on many of the items of jewelry pawned were not redeemed. With an ever growing inventory of dead pawn jewelry the traders began to find a market with tourists, collectors and museums.

The condition of the Navajo economy did not improve until Congress passed the indian Reorganization Act in 1934. This legislation enabled the tribal nations to incorporate, self-govern and to hold their tribal lands as their own. Equally important was the fact that this act essentially ended the acculturation of tribal peoples. A year later in 1935 the Indian Arts and Crafts Board was established to open new markets and to improve the condition of tribal artists in general. Shortly after guilds were established to teach apprentices the traditional designs and techniques of Navajo metal working. Silversmiths also benefited from financial support from public institutions and museums which provided economic feasibility to their chosen career.


Native American Jewelry – Definitions

Here are a some of the most common terms that you will run into when shopping for or reading about Native American Jewelry.

Annealing: Tempering or softening metal by heating it and then rapidly cooling it. In American Indian jewelry they would use this process to soften coins enough so that they could be formed into the desired form.

Applique: A decorative item which has been soldered to the final piece of Native American jewelry.

Turquoise Bracelet

This bracelet features bossing, applique and bent wire techniques

Bent Wire: Thin silver wire which has been bent to form circles or half circles and then appliquéd or soldered to an element of jewelry.

Bezel: Thin wall of silver which surrounds a stone and anchors it in place.

Boss: A raised ornament which is either solid or possibly repoussed.

Boulder or Ribbon Turquoise: Boulder Turquoise is when turquoise is cut to include the host rock or vein rock within which it occurs naturally. The trick to this presentation is to cut in such a manner as to include just the right amount of turquoise along with the host rock. Much of Boulder turquoise comes from the Royston and Pilot Mountain mines in Northern Nevada but it can actually be found at most turquoise mines where the turquoise occurs in veins.


Necklace featuring Boulder Turquoise.

Butterfly: In Navajo jewelry in particular this design consists of a center element flanked by two wing shaped elements. This shape is often used on Concho or Concha belts in between the large oval or circle pieces. The reference to butterflies was started by early traders and does not have carry this meaning traditionally among the Navajos.


Picture of a typical Native American butterfly design.

Cabochon: Usually standard size cut stones which have a flat bottom and smooth rounded top. Cabochons can be cut and polished into many different shapes and are not faceted normally. Below you will see cabochons cut into non-standard sizes.

turquoise cabs

Free form turquoise cabochons, please note the lower right stone is overturned to reveal the backing.

Casting: Process by which molten silver is poured into a mold to create the shape desired. Tufa, a light porous stone was one of the first methods used to create jewelry and is referred to as Tufa Casting. Sandstone was oiled and also used which is called Sand Casting and now centrifuge casting machines can be used which is called spin casting. There is a limit to the number of times that a sand or tufa cast can yield.

Chalcedony: Quartz that is either bluish or greenish gray and is sometimes polished and used in Southwestern Indian jewelry.


Channelwork or channel inlay: The setting of turquoise or another stone separated by thin strips of silver. This method requires precisely cut stones and very detailed oriented silversmithing.

Zuni Turquoise Channel Inlay bracelet

Zuni Turquoise Channel Inlay bracelet

Chasing: The use of a hammer and a chisel to decorate a silver surface.


This bracelet illustrates the chasing technique of adorning silver. The diagonal lines you see on each side of the bracelet were chased. The half moon shapes in between were stamped impressions.

Concha: Describes a round or oval shape of with a central design element with radiating designs extending to the edge. The concha shape is used primarily as a method to decorate
belts but can also be used in bolos, rings and bracelets.

Typical Navajo stamped concho with single turquoise setting

Typical Navajo stamped concho with single turquoise setting


Dapping: Creating a shape with silver by forcing it into the bottom of a mold usually with a punch and hammer. Dapping blocks are made in both wood and metal and help to shape sheet metal into a form such as a dome.

This is an example of a metal dapping set, wood is also used.

This is an example of a metal dapping set, wood is also used.

Heischi: Describes any shell or stone which has been fashioned into disc or tube shaped beads. These beads may graduate in dimension or all be the  size. These heisci beads are generally strung on a cord or wire and worn as a necklace. The Santa Domingo and San Felipe peoples were the first to master this technique in the southwest.

Turquoise Heishci Bracelet

Turquoise Heishci Bracelet

Hopi Silvercraft Guild: The guild is a cooperative established in 1949 which exists to promote and market Hopi art as well as provide support to emerging Hopi artists. Unfortunately through a series of bad investments the guild is not as vibrant as it once was.

Hubbell glass beads: These were imported glass beads from Italy, Bohemia and finally Czechoslovakia that were sold at trading posts in the Southwest. The color of the beads were turquoise and were meant to be a substitute for real thing. While they are called Hubbell beads there exists no information that would confirm that Hubbell ever actually imported these items. Today almost any glass bead that mimics turquoise is called a Hubbell bead. The bracelet below contains to light blue Hubbell beads.

Native American Jewelry - Hubbell Glass

Two triangular shaped Hubbell Glass beads are used in this early Navajo bracelet


Jacla: Originally made and worn by the Pueblo peoples it also became popular amongst the Navajo people through trade. Jacla is actually a Navajo word meaning ear wire. The Jacla are usually a 4”-6” loop consisting of turquoise heische with colored shells highlighting the center of the drop. The jacla were usually worn on or tied to the ear lobe but can also be found on the ends of turquoise necklaces.

Turquoise beads with jacla. Native American Jewelry

Turquoise beads with jacla.

Tufa Casting: The method of  pouring melted metal into a form or mold created out of tufa stone. Tufa stone is a soft rock formed out of volcanic ash. This technique is one of the earliest methods used by Navajo silversmiths and continues to be used today.


Side view of a tufa-cast bracelet. Note the small imperfections you can still see on the back side of the bracelet. These imperfections mimic the surface of the original tufa mold.

Native American Jewelry in the Southwest

While there exists no known written record of the emergence of native silversmithing in the US southwest it is generally believed to have been sometime after 1850. In 1854 at Fort Defiance, agent Dodge hired George Carter, a blacksmith, and Juan Anaya as an assistant, a Mexican silversmith to teach the local Navajos the art of metal smithing. While records show they produced bridles, bridle bits, rings and etc., it should not be forgotten that a Mexican silversmith was an assistant to George Carter.

The Navajos were clearly making some items of silver jewelry by the early 1850’s. Several drawings exist showing Pueblo and Navajo wearing silver buttons on their pants as decoration. Written descriptions of Navajo dress also include leather belts with silver ovals attached.

The Navajo continued their almost constant raiding of the Rio Grande valley during the early 1860’s. The raiding had provided them with livestock, slaves and European ornaments. This raiding resulted in the Navajo campaign circa 1863-1864 which was led by Kit Carson. The Carson led campaign destroyed crops and orchards until they were able to defeat the Navajo and march them to Bosque Redondo. Located in southeast New Mexico near Fort Sumner Bosque Redondo was to be the Navajos home until 1868.

During their time at Bosque Redondo the Navajo appear to have honed their silver working skills. Some of the Navajo who were being instructed in metal working during this time apparently picked up the ability to make stamps and dies. The government used to issue metal ration tags which controlled the amount of food distributed. History indicates that the Navajo smiths were able to counterfeit the ration tags resulting in the government issuing cardboard ones instead.

By the time the Navajo returned to their reservation in 1868 they possessed a growing skill in silver smithing. Having learned to make stamps and dies they began to duplicate on silver the patterns seen in Mexican leather work. Those that worked for the government began to demand their pay in silver, which was later turned into items of decoration.

By 1880 silver smithing was pervasive throughout the Navajo reservation. Federal agents had encouraged the process by providing smithing tools and encouraging the sharing of techniques. Herding sheep, making blankets and silver smithing provided the Navajo with a reasonable economic foundation going forward. To be continued,,,,,