Collecting Navajo jewelry

Silver crafts first reached the New World with the Spanish conquistadors. In time, the Mexican people, like the conquistadors, began creating silver ornamented bridles, often trading them for Navajo cattle.

According to legend, a Navajo blacksmith, intrigued by the lustrous, malleable material, studied the secrets of silver craft with a Mexican silversmith. When the Navajo tribe was later imprisoned at Fort Sumner, N.M., this blacksmith used the opportunity to teach his brothers this valuable trade. Later, when the Navajos finally returned to their mesas and canyons, they brought their metalworking tools and newfound skills with them.

At first, Navajo silversmiths created useful, everyday items like belt buckles, bow guards, buttons, clasps, and horse bridles, all for personal use. For lack of raw silver, they laboriously hammered or melted down silver slugs, United States silver coins, and later, Mexican pesos. Since the metallic composition of Mexican and U.S. coins differs, collectors can sometimes differentiate between these two sources by sight.

Understandably, these early pieces, measured by eye, cut by hand, and fashioned with hammer and chisel, were crudely made. Artistic decoration, if any, was limited to file etchings or stamped simple geometrical designs. They were rarely signed. Since they boasted so much pure silver, these pieces were very heavy.

A primitive type of sand casting, pouring molten silver into designs carved into sets of soft rock, was another early Navajo technique. This labor-intensive method, though updated, is still in use today, typically producing cuff-style bracelets, beads, and buckles.

Because early Navajo silver pieces were painstakingly created and were “worth their weight in gold,” silverwork was far more than simply utilitarian or decorative. Owning items like silver bow guards and bolos increased a man’s worth, raised his social status, and even offered him financial security. Silverwork, along with valued items like hats, blankets, and rugs, often served as collateral for loans at Navajo Nation trading posts.

Come spring, hard-pressed farmers might swap their silver-ornamented belts for seed money, expecting to buy them back at summer harvest. Women might trade their prized turquoise bracelets and rings for bolts of velvet, a Singer treadle sewing machine, or a couple of sheep. Medicine men and tribal leaders might borrow back their silver belts and head bands for dances and ceremonies. When the good times were over, however, their treasures usually graced the trading post’s pawn racks again.

If these pawns were not claimed within the contractual length of time, however, trading posts were authorized to sell them at a profit. This is how much old Navajo jewelry, sometimes dubbed “dead pawn,” reaches the hands of eager collectors. Many use the term “old pawn” loosely, indicating all antique hand-produced Navajo silver jewelry. Clearly, though, a silver buckle dating back to the 1880s is not pawn jewelry if it has not actually been pawned. It is simply an authentic Navajo buckle.

The term “pawn,” to urban dwellers may elicit visions of inner city ghetto culture. Clearly, though, Navajo pawn has an entirely different connotation. These richly designed, one-of-a-kind pieces exemplify Native American culture at its finest. Since they were created by Navajos for Navajos, free of all outside influence, they embody tribal art as well as tribal and personal history.

The quality of Navajo silverwork improved dramatically from the 1880s onward, with the introduction of finer files, specialized soldering materials, purchased emery paper, and newer polishing techniques. With these refined tools, it was now possible to create more elaborate silver articles, including powder-chargers, earrings, round beads, tobacco flasks, belts, and bridle ornaments. Many of these pieces now boasted stamped designs.

In the 1920s, when sheet silver replaced silver slugs and coins, artisans no longer needed to melt and pound their raw material flat. The ease of hammering or bending thin sheets into jewelry allowed silver artisans to create an array of new designs. Over the next few decades, Navajo silversmiths began incorporating heavy chunks of turquoise in their creations. Their earrings, which had begun as simple, unadorned silver circlets, crescents, or teardrops, were now often stamped with simple designs.

Large round beads evolved into more decorative fluted or oval-shaped, often with shanked coins strung between them. The coins themselves, when domed, often became beads too. Squash blossom beads, round, hollow, and adorned with circles of open “petals,” appear extensively in Navajo necklaces. Despite their flowery name, they actually have nothing to do with either squash or blossoms, but simply recall Spanish influence. So do “najas,” crescent-shaped pendants that evoke Moorish Spain. Many Navajo necklaces combine these two beloved motifs, hanging najas from squash blossom necklaces.

Series of conchos, large, flat, shell-like silver heavy ornaments similar to Plains tribal silverwork, often adorn Navajo belts and bridles. They often feature small, repeated designs painstakingly hand-stamped with dies and hammers.

Today most Navajo silversmiths draw on traditional techniques to create traditional pieces, like rings, pins, bolo ties, pendants, necklaces, and buckles. Others create modern items like barrettes, watchbands, and tie tacks, adorning them with stylized butterflies, dragonflies, hummingbirds, and roadrunners. Some Navajo silver craftsmen and women, utilizing innovative techniques coupled with traditional and non-traditional ornaments, are creating exciting, one-of-a-kind pieces.

Collectors, to avoid purchasing mass-produced reproductions passed off as authentic Navajo crafted silver jewelry, should deal only with reputable members of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association. A certificate of authenticity, as well as a description of materials used, tribal affiliation of the artist, and the artist’s name, should accompany each purchase.

Silver jewelry continues to play an important role in everyday life of the Navajo Nation. Charley Billy, raised by his grandparents on the “Big Rez,” near Chinle, Ariz., confides that his family has rarely pawned their silver and turquoise family heirlooms.

“Except in emergencies,” he adds.

When they do, like most Navajos, they always get their treasures back. That’s why these pieces rarely reach the general market. No wonder that Navajo pawn jewelry is both widely sought and wildly expensive. Who knows what tales of triumph and tragedy a 100-year-old sand-cast bracelet or squash blossom necklace might tell?

Charley might know. His grandfather owned silver “bow guards, hatband, concho belt, bolo, ring, the whole works, because he was a medicine man. He wore all that during ceremonies, not as a vanity, but as a sign of respect.”

His grandmother, too, owned thousands of dollars worth of silver jewelry. Even the buttons on her coat were silver, recalls Charley, “domed ‘Walking Liberty’ dollars and Mercury dimes.”

Navajos are often buried amid their silver treasures, he adds.

Turquoise: What to look for, and what to avoid

Turquoise, a soft, opaque mineral mined around the world, ranges in luster and density. Depending on its chemical composition, it also ranges in color, from robin’s-egg blue through all shades of green.

Uniformly hued, natural turquoise is most highly valued. Pieces that retain variegated intrusions from their mother rocks, their matrix, are also treasured for their unique beauty.

Porous and mottled turquoise, which is liable to crumble or discolor with wear, is less desirable. Pieces are often “improved” by hardening, coating, or even dyeing.

Least desirable of all are turquoise restitutions, fragments too small for jewelry use, which are powdered, mixed with resin, and then formed into a solid mass.

Of course, collectors must beware of plastic and dyed-stone turquoise imitations. Navajos have long believed that turquoise holds spiritual, protective powers. Collectors too, delight in its timeless, aesthetic appeal.