About Native American Silver and Silverwork

Navajo Yei silver overlay buckle

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Although Native Americans, especially in Central and South America, had worked precious metals long before the coming of the Europeans, what we think of today as Native American jewelry was influenced by the Spanish, who brought silversmiths and Spanish and Moorish designs to the New World.

In North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, Lois Sherr Dubin says that during the 1850s Navajos learned silver smithing from the Spanish, at first copying their styles and jewelry, but later developing their own. After the Long Walk ended in the late 1860s and reservation boundaries were set, the land controlled by the Navajo people was considerably reduced, and they were forced to adopt a more sedentary way of life. Along with herding, many Navajos, both men and women, became silversmiths.

At first they hammered American and Mexican silver coins flat, then stamped, engraved and shaped them, but soon they were creating necklaces, bridle decorations, concho belts and other silver jewelry for their own use as well as for trade. (North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment).

Within ten years, the craft was passed from the Navajos to the Zunis, and then to the other Pueblo tribes. Each tribe began to develop a unique style; the Zunis used silver as a setting for turquoise, the Hopis became skilled in silver overlay (North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment).

Today the various jewelry techniques are used by Native American silversmiths from many tribes, although the Hopis are still best known for silver overlay, and the Zunis for inlay work. Native American artists have expanded their skills to include gold and a variety of precious and semi-precious gems from around the world.

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Native American Silver Jewelry Styles

Stamp Work. Stamp work is the craft of decorating a surface with designs made using metal stamps. The designs may be raised from the surface or incised. Frequently, the depressed areas created by the stamp are oxidized to emphasize the pattern. Silver concho jewelry immediately comes to mind as an example of stamp work.

Example of Native American stamp work Example of Native American stamp work

Inlay. Silver inlay involves cutting, shaping and polishing stones to create a pattern within a metal shape. The silver form is created first, then stones are selected and cut to fill the spaces created by the silver. Sometimes the stones themselves are cut and inlaid with other stones in contrasting colors. The Zunis are famous for their inlaid silver jewelry.

Example of Native American inlay work Example of Native American inlay work

Overlay. Silver overlay is the art of soldering two sheets of silver together to create a two- or three-dimensional pattern. Sometimes the top layer has a cut out design, and the bottom layer is oxidized or etched to give the pattern depth. Sometimes the top layer forms a bas-relief or raised picture or pattern on the flat bottom layer. Hopi silver overlay work is usually of the first type.

Example of Native American silver overlay Example of Native American silver overlay

Cast Jewelry. Liquid silver is poured into a molded shape created in a frame lined with fine sand mixed with a bonding agent, or carved into a soft rock such as tufa. When hard, the silver is removed from the mold, polished and finished. Silver tufa cast jewelry is becoming more popular and has the advantage that the mold can be reused many times.

Example of Native American tufa cast silver Example of Native American cast silver

Cut Out Jewelry. Cut out jewelry has pictures or patterns cut out of the silver. Some cut out jewelry has no backing; some is domed or has a shadow box with the back layer oxidized to emphasize the cut out shapes.

Example of Native American cut out work Example of Native American cut out work

Cluster Jewelry. This is a descriptive term for Native American jewelry containing a number of stones set in bezels close together. Cluster necklaces, pendants and bracelets are very popular today.

Example of Native American turquoise cluster jewelry Example of Native American turquoise cluster jewelry

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What to Look for in Native American Silver Jewelry

Common sense as well as liking should help you pick out good quality Native American silver jewelry. Because of the enormous amount of silver work being produced and marketed, it's prudent to ask a few questions before you buy.

Silver content. Today most sterling silver jewelry is what is says it is, sterling. Sterling silver is defined as silver that is 92.5% pure, often called .925 silver. The remaining 7.5% is an alloy, usually copper.

Native American sterling silver items are usually, but not always, stamped “STERLING” somewhere on the back. Vintage and antique Native American silver jewelry especially may not carry any indication of whether it was made of sterling. Because the price of silver has jumped dramatically in recent years, the price of jewelry made with sterling silver is going to be considerably higher.

To keep costs down, some artists are now working with nickel-silver. Nickel-silver is harder than sterling and is often used to make the clips for silver-topped money clips, and occasionally, I'm sorry to say, by dishonest people. Ask the seller if you have any questions. Most will be happy to tell customers which type of silver they used.

Craftsmanship. A good quality piece speaks for itself. For silver pieces that must stand up to wear and tear such as a belt buckles, the silver should not be so thin that the buckle will bend or break with normal use, the pattern should be fine and regular, the stones good quality and well-set.

Most high quality Native American silver jewelry is the work of a single artist or family of artists who made the entire piece from start to finish to an original design of their own creation. However, popular jewelry patterns are widely copied and enhanced by each artist's own vision.

Reputable galleries, trading posts and crafts stores will be able to tell you the source of the item you're buying. If it was made by a well-known artist, the piece may have his or her name, initials or hallmark somewhere on the back. You may also get a certificate of authenticity and/or a biography of that artist when you buy the piece.

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This information is provided to help you in selecting and evaluating Native American jewelry and crafts.

We are happy to answer questions by email.

Please note that Coyote's Game does not buy or sell used or vintage silver, nor do we appraise Native American silver.

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