The beautiful works in silver and turquoise jewelry that we visualize when we think about Southwestern Native American jewelry are the result of a century and a half of innovation. The working of metal into jewelry by Natives of the Southwest is credited first to the Navajo. The first Navajo to learn the art of metalwork is said to be Atsidi Sani, although others may have been dabbling in the trade. It was certainly Atsidi Sani who was the most prolific blacksmith.
As a younger man in the early 1850’s, Atsidi Sani wanted to learn the blacksmith’s trade and corner the Navajo market, as there were few, if any Native blacksmiths at this time. Atsidi Sani sought out a Mexican Blacksmith, Nakai Tsosi, learned the craft from him, and subsequently taught his sons. There was not much profit in jewelry making in that day. The primary output from the forges were knives, bits, and bridle parts. It was not until the Navajo / American war, when the Navajo were defeated by Kit Carson and force-marched to Bosque Redondo in 1863, that jewelry making began to gain a foothold.
At Bosque, the Navajo had access to copper. By the time the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland, there were a few smiths with a talent for jewelry making, and more were learning. Early work was almost exclusively in copper, but silver was preferred and became more available in the form of American and Mexican coin that the Navajo obtained from trade with Mexicans, Pueblos, and early American traders who were beginning to establish posts on the new reservation.
The craftsmanship involved was incredible. Tools were hard to come by. Stamps, metal shears, and the like were often fashioned from old files or other implements that could be had through trade. There were no acetylene torches or ready-made solders. Pieces that required soldering were arranged together in the coals of the fire with a home made solder of silver and brass filings and heated with a bellows. The lucky silversmith retrieved the finish piece; the not so lucky one was left with a blob of twisted metal.
For other pieces, plates were formed of ingots made by smelting, then flattened in a long process of hammering and annealing, and finally polished with stones or sand. Designs were stamped, etched, raised in relief (repousse), or cut with a chisel. The concho was a popular item, the design borrowed from the Mexicans, the Pueblos, and the Plains who had conchos from early trade with French trappers. Bead necklaces were popular with crosses or “naja” pendants, crescent shaped designs borrowed from Spanish bridles. The Navajo were becoming masters of this art, and from them the Pueblo Indians began to learn the craft as well, creating their own unique styles.
The Pueblos had always used turquoise as well as shell and stone to fashion jewelry in the form of beads and pendants as well as to carve fetishes, the animalistic figures central to many Pueblo religions. Turquoise, that semi-precious gemstone for which Indian jewelry is known, did not begin to appear set in silver jewelry until close to the turn of the century. It was at this time, too, that traders began to encourage the making of jewelry for the tourist trade along the railroad stops, supplying ready made turquoise cabachons, thin silver blanks, and stamps with “Indian” designs to the local craftsmen.
But jewelry for Native American consumption was still being made. For many of the Southwestern Native American tribes, jewelry was displayed as a show of prosperity for an individual or family. The Navajo preferred the turquoise bead necklaces and earrings of the Santo Domingo and the Zuni. The Pueblos were fond of the heavy silver and turquoise bracelets produced by the Navajo. Trade was brisk among these peoples and, shortly after the turn of the century the Pueblos too began exploring the anglo market.
The fine hand drilled and hand rolled beads in shell and turquoise of the Pueblos, most notably Santo Domingo, were a popular item. The work of the Zuni was also popular. Beautiful pieces of lapidary inlay, clusters of round or pear shaped turquoise and finely carved turquoise needlepoint and petitpoint were finding an appreciative market in the anglo trade as well. In the 1950’s the Hopi sought and found a market for a new style of jewelry, their intricate silver overlay, in which the Hopi incorporated their own religious and decorative symbols to create magnificent images and designs.
Over time, the influence of the White trader, the Mexican iron and leatherworkers, and the Native craftsman’s own tastes and eye for design have culminated in the fine art of metalwork and lapidary that is Indian jewelry today.