Contemporary Navajo jewelry shows dynamism and innovation as modern artists build on the foundation of early silversmithing techniques. Top Navajo jewelry artists pay homage to the techniques of the past while pushing into new expressions with exotic metals and stones gleaned from around the world. The culmination is an array of jewelry expression from classic Navajo concho belts and bracelets to modern forms expressed in precious metals and sparkling gems. (Continued below)
Navajo metalsmiths were not only responsible for the inception of Navajo jewelry, but the introduction of silversmithing to Hopi and Zuni artisans. One of the most prominent early Navajo jewelry silversmiths, Atsidi Sani, learned metalsmithing techniques from a Mexican man living near Mount Taylor, New Mexico. He is often credited with the emergence of Navajo silver jewelry, first by teaching his four sons and they in turn, teaching others in the newly formed Navajo Nation.
Early Navajo jewelry consisted of simple earrings, ketohs, belt fasteners and bracelets. Traders provided tools and supplies such as silver coins and slugs. More important, traders gave Indian silversmiths a place to trade and sell their work. In the 1920’s sheet silver replaced silver slugs, allowing artists to work more quickly since they no longer needed to melt and pound the slugs flat. A Navajo jewelry style evolved, typified by heavy silverwork hammered, bent and molded, either alone or sometimes around stones.
One early technique still used by Navajo silversmiths is making silver castings in sand or stone molds. The artist carves a design into damp sand or tufa, a porous volcanic stone, and then secures a second flat stone on top to complete the mold. Using a crucible, the artist then pours melted silver into the mold through a carved channel. Air vents allow steam to escape, preventing air bubbles from forming in the cooling silver.
After the silver has cooled and hardened, the artist removes the piece from the mold. Any silver not part of the overall design is cut off and the edges are filed smooth. All surfaces of the jewelry are ground and polished. Sometimes, artists add stones as a final accent.
Early Navajo jewelry emerged from blacksmithing techniques that required the heating and softening of metal interspersed with hammering to work the metal into desired shapes. Great skill is required to balance these opposite forces. Too much heating and hammering causes the piece to become “work-hardened” making it brittle and prone to cracking. Too little force can lead to a poorly shaped piece with shallow, inconsistent design work.
After shaping the piece, the silversmith uses a graver or die stamps to inscribe designs into the metal. Many artists create their own carved metal stamps to add design elements such as lines or swirls to their jewelry. The artist places the designed end on the desired spot of the jewelry piece then strikes, stamping the design into the metal surface. A good silversmith strikes the stamp evenly each time, producing a consistent design.
----Excerpt from A Guide To Indian Jewelry in the Southwest
by Georgiana Kennedy Simpson