From an excavated cleft along the old Pony Express trail in the Simpson Mountain Range near Austin, Nevada, to the bent yet masterful hands of master lapidary Bruce Eckhardt, to the gifted grip of Navajo silversmith Albert Jake, this exquisite piece of Damele variscite has just begun its journey as a carefully crafted piece of wearable art. We predict a long life, full of love and appreciation, for this ring. Can one truly love an inanimate object? We think so.
The clear, deep, robins-egg-blue turquoise they call male, and the stone of a greenish hue they call female. Pg. 230
Whiteshell [yo lgai] designates the 'white from which beads are made.' It is one of the many examples in Navaho where the same word means a part or a whole, the material or the object manufactured from it. Whiteshell may refer to the thin, flat, white shell beads greatly treasured by the Navaho and often incorrectly called wampum by the whites. Formerly, the beads were made of a seashell, doubtless imported through trade from the west coast, probably from the Gulf of California.
According tla h's creation story, the spirit of whiteshell was placed inside Moon, which was composed of ice; the spirit of turquoise was put into Sun, that of Abalone into Black Wind, that of redstone into Yellow Wind. JS, speaking of the Shooting Chant, said Moon's house was whiteshell.
An indispensable requirement of a chant is the basket; at least one is believed to represent whiteshell. All the precious stones are mythical basket materials. Frequently the basket is of one stone with a contrasting rim - whiteshell rimmed with turquoise or the reverse; abalone rimmed with redstone or the reverse, jet with an abalone rim or the reverse. Bowls, though not as common as baskets, may be deific properties. White Body of the fourth world carried a bowl of whiteshell.
A song intoned at the preparation of the War Ceremony rattlestick refers to Child-of-the-water's queue as whiteshell.
Turquoise [do tliji], 'the-particular-one-which-is-blue,' may be the general collective term for all the precious stones, wealth, or mixed offerings. Good fortune is attributed to the stone. A few of the most unusual references to turquoise are as follows:
Sun gave one of his wonderful children a pair of turquoise earstrings to enable him to win at gambling.
The hair of a remarkable girl, desired by many suitors, was covered with images of coyote and birds of different kinds, all of turquoise; and she possessed a huge disk of turquoise.
Four rattles of buffalo hide are important equipment in the Shooting Chant. One explanation says they symbolize Big Snakes, another that they represent Sun's turquoise rattles.
Sun's son smoked a turquoise pipe, as did Frog.
Perhaps the most unusual allusion is that to First Woman, who, in the first world, was intrigued by a distant fire. When she got to it she found a man, who said, "Your fire is rock crystal; mine is turquoise." This identification was cited as a reason why the two should live together.
The Twins' bows and arrows are sometimes said to be of turquoise.
The reference to turquoise as symbolizing green vegetation in Coyote's first model of the world is interesting.
Changing Woman's home had a turquoise door, and four footprints of turquoise led to a turquoise room. Black Sky Man pulled her up with a cane of turquoise and she became a degree younger than she had been when the Sky People came to her. The cane corresponded with one she gave her wandering people with which they struck the desert and brought forth water.
A small but perfect turquoise bead and an olivella shell tied on a string make the bead token of the Shooting and Hail chants. Sun may be identified with whiteshell or with turquoise.
Abalone [di tcili] is 'the-particular-one-that-is-iridescent, the-one-whose-various-colors-scintillate'; the name probably derives from the stem -tcil, meaning 'tremble.' Abalone is associated with yellow and with Black Wind, whose house, according to JS. was of abalone.
Abalone was offered to Blue Crane to induce him to sing over Holy Man, who had become ill and weak after his many wanderings.
Jet [ba cdjini] is the black substance found in large deposits in the Southwest. A soft cannel coal with a structure that lends itself readily to carving, it takes a beautiful polish. Although jet is the jewel representing black, it is mentioned less frequently than the other jewels.
When the domesticated quadrupeds were brought into existence, a basket of jet edged with abalone and one of abalone rimmed with jet were mentioned. Many birds are now black because they ate of the eggs in the jet basket. The jewel symbol of the northern mountain [dibentsah] is jet.
At the time abalone was offered Blue Heron for his supernatural advice, a piece of jet was offered to a bird called tsih.
When Monster Slayer was knocked out for having drawn the figure of a person on the bull-roarer, Big Fly instructed him to make the offering for restoration by stringing pieces of jet as tassels of grass.
Native redstone [tseltci'] contains ferric coloring matter ranging from dull red to dark pink, often streaked with white. Some of it is probably carnelian. Coral, introduced by the Spanish, has become a substitute, even being called redstone. Examples of the role played by redstone have occurred in the discussion of red; others are the following:
After testing his sons, Sun led them to the edge of the world. There they saw sixteen poles extending from earth to sky - four of whiteshell, four of turquoise, four of abalone, and four of redstone. Sun asked them to choose which they would ascend on; Wind whispered that they should choose the red since they had come seeking war.
All jewels are closely associated with Sun's house, which they compose. Opposite it were five mountains - redstone, glittering, abalone, whiteshell, and turquoise - Sun's mountains, all harmless.
The rattles with which Sun tried to destroy his sons are mentioned in the order: turquoise, whiteshell, abalone, redstone.
Yellow Wind's house was of redstone [JS].
Among the canes furnished Earth People by Changing Woman was one of redstone.
It is doubtful that agate [no lyini] should be included among the precious stones. If we do, to be consistent we should include the other kinds of ceremonial flint, for agate belongs more properly with them than with precious stones. The following will explain the connection between flints and precious stones:
When Sun was convinced that The Twins were really his children, he placed a small agate man inside the body of Monster Slayer to identify him with Sun and make him invincible. A miniature man of turquoise became Child-of-the-water's corresponding symbol.
The stones of the sweathouse were of agate when Sun exposed his sons to the heat test; it was expected to destroy them. Although it exploded, the agate did not destroy The Twins because Talking God had dug a small hole into which they crawled, and had covered it with four white shells. When the test was over, the white shells turned into redstone, abalone, turquoise, and whiteshell.
An agate arrowpoint forms a part of the head bundle of some ceremonies. Fastened to the hair of a patient in the War Ceremony, it represents the flint points that fell from the breast of Big Monster when he was conquered.
Rock Crystal [tseya'tindi ni, nto li, tseso'] is usually not mentioned among the precious stones, but has many ceremonial usages. tseya'tindi ni means 'stone-through-which-light-beams'; nto li means 'the-particular-one-which-is-clear, -translucent.' In many rites it symbolizes fire, especially in the symbolical lighting of the prayersticks, which may contain tobacco. tseso', 'rock-star,' may mean glass as well as crystal.
A crystal was put inside the dark cloud in which Scavenger was enveloped to furnish him light.
At creation a rock crystal was put into the mouth of each person so that everything he said would come true, a probable reason why a crystal is part of many pollen bags, especially the personal ones carried for safety; the pollen represents well-being, the crystal the prayer - that is, the word that makes the prayer come true.
The glass cup holding the chant lotion of the Shooting Chant is a substitute for crystal.
Changing Woman had binoculars of rock crystal.
The line of crystal on Coyote's model of the world represented ice, the only association between crystal and ice I have found.
The basket for the emetic in the first War Ceremony was of crystal.
MIXED JEWELS, the tiny fragments of precious stones accompanying the prayersticks, often indicate that the reed or plant material of which they consist stands for the jewels. Similarly, the feathered wands of the Shooting Chant are substitutes for Sun's jewel arrows, as is the rattlestick of the War Ceremony. Sun's jewel arrows represent the Sun-Wind combination - turquoise for Sun, whiteshell for Moon, abalone for Black Wind, redstone for Yellow Wind; in the Night Chant, the jewels represent the Day Skies.
When the pot drum was prepared for the War Ceremony, the jewels stood for the 'floor of the drum's house,' into which the sounds were pounded.
When and how the Navajo acquired the art of working metals is unknown but there are reasons for supposing that it was introduced among them, or at least more developed and improved upon by them, since the time they have occupied their present country. According to the sayings of some of the old silversmiths of the tribe, the art of working silver was introduced among them by the Mexicans about sixty years ago, or about the middle of the nineteenth century, when a Navajo blacksmith, known by his own people as atsidi sani, or the old smith, and by the Mexicans as Herrero, or the smith, first learned the art from a Mexican silversmith named Cassilio, who is said to have still been living in 1872-1873. An old silversmith, beshlagai il'ini altsosigi, or the slender silversmith, who is still living (1909), and who at one time was considered one of the best, if not the best silversmith in the tribe, is said to have originally learned his craft from Mexicans.
The Navajo silversmith, there for, is a comparatively modern product. Lieut. James H Simpson, who accompanied an expedition into the heart of the Navajo country in 1849, and who gives in his report good descriptions of the country and people as they then were, mentions their peach orchards, farms, herds of ponies, flocks of sheep their beautiful waterproof blankets. etc., but has nothing to say about their artistic silverwork. The art then, as it exists today, probably developed since then, or within the last sixty years. Pg. 271
The Navajo do not mine. Brass for buttons was obtained from the Utes, and copper for bracelets and ornaments from the Mexicans and traders. Silver has superseded copper long since, and is purchased in Mexican coin from the traders. Pg. 64
For a time, the ever-ingenious Navajos found a way to secure additional supplies. Cardboard ration tickets, which were used to obtain food supplies, were distributed among the Navajos as they passed through a gate into a corral. They quickly learned to forge the tickets and, when the government substituted stamped metal ration tickets, those were also forged. A few Navajos had learned to work metal prior to their arrival at Bosque Redondo and others apparently learned while there. These men were undoubtedly responsible for at least some of the forgeries. It was reported that at one time as many as three thousand extra tickets were being passed around. The army finally sent to Washington for elaborate metal disks that could not be copied.
In The Navajo, Ruth Underhill suggests, "When we look for the origin of silverwork, perhaps this craft [the forgeries], developed under stress of hunger, may point to an early inspiration." Prior to the coming of the Spaniards, the Native Americans of the Southwest had no metal or livestock. The Navajos were undoubtedly envious of the strange new enemies who rode horses and had guns, bridle bits, tools, even silver-decorated bridles and saddles. And, even though many of these items were procured through raids, the Dine' must have wished for a steady and reliable source. Learning metalsmithing, however, would have required tools and materials the Navajos did not have, and the Spaniards were sworn enemies. Contact was far too brief to allow even the quick-learning Dine' to acquire Spanish skills. At what time the Navajos actually learned to work metal is debatable. Some say it happened before the Long Walk, while others differ, but it is generally accepted that one of the first blacksmiths was Atsidi Sani (Old Smith), or Herrera Delgadito (Little Slim Ironworker), as he was known by the Mexicans. Margery Bedinger states in Indian Silver that "In about 1850 [Atsidi Sani] journeyed south to a Mexican settlement near Mount Taylor... and persuaded one of the inhabitants, Nakai Tsosi (Thin Mexican), to teach him how to form the black metal."
If not the first Navajo blacksmith, Atsidi Sani was the most prominent, and probably the most proficient, of that era. Noted for making knives and bridle bits, he would teach his craft to many Navajos, including some of the men at Bosque Redondo. Most of the early metalwork was utilitarian, but buttons, rings, earrings, belt pieces strung on leather, and a few bridle ornaments were also made. Multiple bracelets of twisted metal were often worn on one arm; others, hammered out of copper or brass, had lightly scratched, simple designs. Navajos had worn silver ornaments and sported silver bridle decoration for at least fifty years, but those articles were of Spanish origin, either traded or stolen from Mexicans, or taken as spoils of war from Utes or Comanches. In 1853 (eleven years prior to incarceration at Bosque Redondo), Indian Agent Henry Dodge moved into a newly built stone house near Fort Defiance, made friends with the Navajos, and eventually married a Navajo woman. It is also reported that he brought along a blacksmith and a Mexican silversmith. Many years later, the agent's aged son, Chee Dodge, would say that "Old Smith [Atsidi Sani] came to the agency to look on and learned some things." The supposition is that Atsidi Sani learned or perhaps improved his skills by watching these men, but whether his skills included silverwork is unknown. Those years were particularly chaotic; raiding and clashes with other tribes were at their height. Therefore, the times were not particularly conducive to learning a new craft, and silver would have been difficult to obtain.
Atsidi Sani's great-nephew, Grey Moustache, is quoted as saying, "It was not until the Navajo came back [from Bosque Redondo] that he [Atsidi Sari] learned to make silver jewelry." And Chee Dodge would add that "The Navajo didn't make any silver of their own while they were at Fort Sumner. How could they? They were locked up there like sheep in a corral. They had only a very little silver in those days, which they bought from the Mexicans." Several newspaper articles published in New Mexico during those years made claims of Navajo silverwork. "Navajos at Fort Sumner are skilled enough to make good bridle bits and other articles of horse equipage in iron and silver," one reported. "Amongst the chiefs now on this reservation, many are dressed in comfortable and even elegant style, in black cloth and buckskin, well-fitted to their bodies and ornamented with silver buttons of their own execution and design."
The silver buttons were most assuredly not of Navajo design; they had been procured from Mexicans for years. Furthermore, this entire account seems doubtful considering the deplorable state of Navajo life during exile. One might suspect that the editors, possibly influenced by corrupt politicians who were noted for their greed-and-graft mentality, were trying to make living conditions appear much better than they were. Historic photographs show the Bosque Redondo Navajos poorly dressed in cotton clothing or wrapped in blankets against the bitter cold. It is unlikely that even "the chiefs" mentioned in the newspaper article would have dressed as described. If any did, they must have been the exception, and any silver ornaments they possessed were probably trade goods. It seems much more probable that the Navajos learned to work silver soon after they resettled in their homeland. Atsidi Sari is generally considered the founder of the silver craft, but whether he learned it from the same Mexican who taught him metalwork or from another Mexican friend is unconfirmed. However, his first students were his four sons who, in turn, taught others.
With peaceful conditions, Mexican smiths began traveling onto the reservation to trade their silver for Navajo livestock. As the silversmith fashioned a piece, the Navajo who ordered it would certainly have observed and perhaps even assisted by working the bellows. Considering their propensity for acquiring new skills easily, the Navajos must have recognized this as an excellent opportunity to learn to craft their own silver ornaments. It has been recorded that they were casting jewelry as early as 1870. Silver coins, acquired from soldiers at Fort Defiance and Fort Wingate, were melted down, then poured into hand-carved molds to create a particular design or a simple ingot, which was then cooled, hammered into a thin sheet of silver, and trimmed to the proper shape. The learning process, however, was still gaining momentum. In 1884 John Lorenzo Hubbell (the much-admired Don Lorenzo of Hubbell Trading Post at Ganado) and his partner, C. N. Cotton, hired Mexican smiths to teach silversmithing to the Navajos, and began furnishing some of the coins used to fashion the silver ornaments. The first Navajo silverwork was rather crude and quite heavy, but it showed a lot of promise. Designs were symmetrical even though smiths had no precision implements; in fact, they had few tools of any kind, often just a hammer, some files, and scissors or metal snips.
Washington Matthews, a young army surgeon from Fort Wingate and the most noted Navajo authority of the 1880s, recorded the tools and techniques used by Navajo smiths. For anvils they acquired pieces of train rail, kingpins from wagons, any old pieces of iron large enough, hard stones, or tree stumps. Forges were made of mud or sandstone, the bellows from goatskin bags, and crucibles from anything that worked stones with small hollows, tumbler-sized pottery pieces made especially for that purpose, or iron pipes with one end flattened, turned up, and sealed. A semicircle or V-shaped groove was sometimes cut into anvils for shaping bracelets; the first molds were made from baked clay and discarded after a time. Later molds were carved from iron, wood, or soft sandstone, which was greased with mutton tallow to prevent sticking. Some of the first silver items made by Navajo smiths were the buttons they had previously obtained from Mexicans. Men's trousers, jackets, leather pouches, bridles, saddles, gun scabbards, ketohs, or bow guards, the wide leather bands worn on the left wrist to protect from the bowstring's recoil. and belts were adorned with these silver ornaments. They also decorated the moccasins and leggings of both sexes, and women's blouses had rows of them at the neck, across the shoulder, down the front, and running the length of both sleeves.
Many bracelets were nothing more than narrow bands with notches cut on either side; others were made of twisted wire or plain silver with simple designs scratched in with a file. Conchas for belts were decorated with scalloped edges, punched holes, and incised and stamped designs. Rings were simple decorated hands of silver; earrings were large loops that passed through pierced ears. Silver replaced the tin decorations on ketohs. Small silver canteen-shaped containers for carrying tobacco were copied from rawhide ones carried by Mexicans. The headbands of bridles were covered with wide strips of silver that almost concealed the leather. Normally, a silver concha was added on either side, and a crescent-shaped ornament called a naja hung from the forehead strap. Najas, adapted from those used by the Spaniards, were worn on bead necklaces as well, and were often interchangeable with those on bridles. Matthews also recorded the bead-making process which began around 1870. By this time, the smiths were apparently turning from U.S. coins to pesos for their silver; Matthews mentions that Mexican silver dollars were used to form the beads. A peso was pounded into the desired thickness; then a disk large enough to make half a bead was cut out with scissors. It was trimmed and used as a pattern for the others. Half-circles were formed with a mold and die; the pieces were strung on a stout wire in pairs forming full circles and fastened tightly together. A mixture of borax, saliva, and silver was applied to the seams of all the beads; they were put into the fire and all soldered at one time. After cooling, the beads were blanched, filed, and polished.
Bead necklaces had become very popular by the 1900s. According to G. W. James in Indians of the Painted Desert Region, "scarcely a man or woman of any standing in the tribe does not possess a home-manufactured necklace of silver beads." The "squash blossom" necklace was probably introduced around the turn of the century. It was not mentioned by Matthews in the 1880s, but was included in the Franciscan Father's Ethnologic Dictionary of 1910: "When arranged upon a string or thong, each necklace contains from fifty to sixty the finer, smaller specimens often number as many as one hundred beads. Usually they have a large crescent-shaped pendant in the front center, and in the lower half of the strand small silver crosses, and other flowerlike ornaments are strung after every second or third bead. Necklaces of this kind are very much prized by the Navajo and are certainly very ornamental." The most accepted theory about the squash blossom design is that it symbolizes the Mexican pomegranate. In A Brief History of Navajo Silversmithing, Arthur Woodward wrote: "It is my contention that all of these beads were originally Spanish-American trouser and jacket ornaments. . . . [The pomegranate] has been a favorite Spanish decorative motif for centuries . . . it seems foolish to look farther afield for prototypes of this highly popular necklace element. If one were to remove these buttons or cape ornaments from the original garments and string them, the result would be a fine 'old' Navajo necklace." The ornament was quite possibly misnamed by a trader who thought it resembled a squash blossom.
The first decorations on silver were merely scratched in with a file. Later, a stronger tool was used to cut deeper lines. The technique of "punching" silver was adapted from the Mexican tooling of leather. Any sharp-pointed piece of iron was used as a tool to punch dots into the silver. The first stamps were made by cutting a piece of pipe in half to make the imprint of a semicircle. Don Lorenzo brought steel dies, or stamps, to Hubbell Trading Post later, but many smiths still made their own. The years from 1880 to 1900 have been called the Classic Period in Navajo jewelry. The time of learning was over, but the tourists had not yet entered the scene. There were numerous smiths on the reservation, each making the items he wished to his own satisfaction. They used curved figures and lines in their designs, and most used carved dies which they made themselves. Many new, and much-improved, tools were available, such as tongs, pliers, cold chisels, punches, awls, vices, and dies. Since the use of U.S. coins had been declared illegal and the Mexicans had stopped exportation of pesos, most of the smiths fashioned their silver ornaments from one-ounce squares of coin silver.
Silver jewelry had become a status symbol among the Navajos, the mark of wealth and prestige. The "pawn system" allowed them to pawn their jewelry to traders in exchange for food and other necessities. The jewelry was redeemed when the owner had the money, usually from selling a rug or the wool from newly sheared sheep. In the meantime, traders often allowed the owner to borrow the jewelry for a ceremony or a fair, then return it the next day. Southwestern tribes had used shell and turquoise beads in necklaces and earrings for centuries, and the early Navajos wore these ornaments as well as turquoise nugget earrings. The nugget necklaces so popular among the Navajos probably evolved through the years. As turquoise became more available, it gradually replaced much of the shell. Adding turquoise to silverwork was not a common practice until around 1900. Even then, one large stone was usually set into each classically simple piece. Other stones, used to a lesser extent, included garnet, peridot, opal, coral, smoky topaz, jasper, carnelian, chalcedony, agate, malachite, and jet, to name a few. None ever enjoyed the popularity of turquoise. In the early 1900s, the winds of change blew in with the coming of the railroad and the Fred Harvey Company, which established accommodations along the route. Tourism was introduced to Indian country, and tourists wanted silver jewelry. However, most of them neither knew nor cared anything about quality; they wanted inexpensive pieces adorned with garish designs, and shopkeepers were all too willing to please. Items made strictly for tourists began appearing: ashtrays, watch bracelets, letter openers, cigarette holders, and utensils.
Larger companies began mass-producing "Indian" jewelry; smaller shops hired both non-Indians and Indians from various tribes to machine-stamp cheap, tinny silver with designs such as lightning, clouds, arrows, Indian heads, snakes, owls, swastikas, and thunderbirds, the last merely a figment of someone's imagination. Lists of what these figures supposedly symbolized were given to tourists. At that time, designs on authentic, handcrafted Indian jewelry were simply decorative. To quote Carl Rosnek in Skystone and Silver: "A great deal of nonsense was written or rumored concerning the 'meaning' of these symbols-when in fact, with few exceptions, they had none for the Indians." Much of the tourist jewelry was made of nickel and decorated with small imitation-turquoise stones. Many of these items, sometimes referred to as "Route 66" jewelry because of the proliferation of shops selling it along that highway, were stamped "nickel silver." By 1937, laws were passed stating that only Indian-made jewelry could be labeled as such, but circumvention became a favorite pastime. In 1940, the Japanese even went so far as to name a town "Reservation," so they could "legitimately" stamp Reservation Made onto manufactured jewelry.
In an effort to slow down the mass production of cheap imitation Indian jewelry made in sweatshops (as they were commonly called), the government ordered that only handmade jewelry could be sold at National Parks and Monuments, and some schools began teaching silversmithing. However, these were troubled times and, with war looming on the horizon, the government had other concerns. In 1941 it did form the Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild to emphasize quality work and encourage the casting of silver; consequently, the skills of many artists improved. The project had to be dropped during World War II, but the Navajo Tribe was allowed to take it over. Despite the problems facing the world and the degradation of their craft during the early 1900s, there were many smiths who never lessened their standards. Superb craftsmen continued to set high-grade stones in quality silver, and some excellent jewelry of that period is considered classic. The use of turquoise had increased through the years, and a few jewelers began adopting the Zuni style of setting multiple stones close together in silver. A larger piece of turquoise was surrounded by small stones, thus forming a cluster. This "cluster style" was a change for Navajo silversmiths, but the Navajos have always accepted change-when it benefited them. Experimenting with new techniques and styles was a change they welcomed. Pgs. 9-28
The famous Navajo silverwork began in these hard years of reconstruction. It was a move made on the Indians' own initiative and, at first, without help from school or agent. For fifty years or so the Navajos had been wearing silver jewelry and bridle ornaments stolen or traded in Mexico. Why should they bother to make such things themselves? They were too busy with war and sheep raising. However, one medicine man called Etsidi Sani, or Old Smith, had at least been interested in ironwork. He had got a "Mexican" friend, which means New Mexican, to teach him how to make iron ornaments for bridles. Some have said he made silver as well as iron, but Old Smith's descendants are sure that the Navajos knew nothing about silverwork before going to Fort Sumner. At the fort, Old Smith had no chance to practice his art-unless, indeed, it was he who counterfeited those identification tags. "How could the Navajo work silver at Fort Sumner!" exclaimed their late chairman Chee Dodge. "They were locked up there just like sheep in a corral!" But when they returned to a poverty-stricken land, that was a different matter. Old Smith went back to his Mexican friend and, say his descendants, learned how to forge and hammer silver. He taught his four sons, using a forge made of baked mud, a bellows of goat skin, and tools out of any pieces of scrap iron begged or filched from the whites. Eagerly the Navajos seized this new means of trade and livelihood. The Zunis still tell how Ugly Smith, one of Old Smith's sons, came to their village in 1872. He came as a poor man, with nothing but his tools and the horse he rode. He stayed a year, teaching the Zunis to make bridle ornaments, belts, and bow guards. When he left, he was driving a herd of horses and sheep ahead of him. That was a bit later in Navajo history. Pgs. 157-158
Silversmithing was learned even more recently. Woodward's data show that the Navahos started to work silver at some time between 1853 and 1858. Techniques were probably learned from whites, either directly from Mexicans or indirectly through other Indian tribes. Much about metal-working may have been learned from the smiths at Fort Sumner during the captivity in the sixties. Of design, Woodward says:
The ancestry of Navaho silver ornament forms has its roots in the silver trade jewelry distributed to the tribes east of the Mississippi River after 1750, and in the Mexican-Spanish costume ornaments and bridle trappings of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The silver distributed to eastern Indians goes back to the traditions of the great English smiths. Thus modern Navaho silver blends English and colonial traditions with Spanish and (ultimately) Arabic. This explains why the solid, simple pieces in the classical Navaho tradition often remind connoisseurs of antique English silver. Pgs. 26-27
Navajo silverwork has also been the subject of substantial scholarly research. Readers interested in the various forms and stylistic changes of Navajo jewelry are referred to the excellent studies by Margery Bedinger (1973), John Adair (1944), and Arthur Woodward (1971). Our present study is concerned with the economic implications of and technological changes in Navajo silversmithing. The Navajos were wearing silver jewelry obtained from the Spaniards by the late eighteenth century, and learned silversmithing from them in about the mid-nineteenth century. Although many scholars have contended that the Navajos did not begin working in silver until after Bosque Redondo it seems likely that they were learning the rudiments of the trade in the previous decade. However, the evolution of silversmithing as an economically important craft did not take place until after 1868. In 1869, Edward Palmer, who led several expeditions from the Peabody Museum to the Southwest during the 1870s, wrote that the Navajos were making silver buttons from Spanish and Mexican one real coins. According to Palmer, the buttons were used as money. A one real coin was worth 12 1/2 or eight to the dollar, and the buttons had the same value. Lack of proper tools limited the quality and variety of items produced by early Navajo silversmiths. In 1871 the agency requested and presumably issued a small number of anvils, vises, hammers, files, file saws, and bellows to help Navajo blacksmiths, who usually worked as silversmiths as well.
During the 1870s, the quality of Navajo silverwork improved as smiths acquired a wider variety of tools from traders and learned to make tools themselves. Matthews noted in the early 1880s that Navajo smiths purchased scissors, iron pliers, hammers, awls, emery paper, fine files, and borax for soldering from local traders. They had also learned to make goatskin bellows, anvils, dies and bolts, sandstone molds for casting, tongs, and brass blowpipes.
As their equipment improved, the silversmiths could produce a greater variety of items. By the early 1800s, they were making buttons, rosettes, bracelets, bridle ornaments, and concha belts. Three or four of the smiths were fashioning canteen-shaped tobacco cases. About 1880, some of the smiths in the Ganado area started to make jewelry with turquoise sets. Silversmithing flourished during the 1880s, when the Navajos prospered and began investing their wealth in silver jewelry. In 1880, when Navajo employees of the agency were asking for their pay in Mexican coins Manuelito decided to make bridles out of silver money. Navajo silversmiths were finding a ready market for their work among their own tribesmen, and a profitable trade in silver jewelry was evolving with local whites and members of other tribes.
The development of the pawn system during the 1880s further encouraged silversmithing. Silver ornaments, no matter what kind, could be pawned to traders in exchange for other goods. The pawn system expanded the function of silver jewelry from personal adornment to "savings" which could be used during times of economic crisis. Bedinger thought that silversmithing probably started in the Ganado area, and noted that most of the "pioneer" Navajo silversmiths lived within twenty-five to forty miles of Ganado. The number of smiths rapidly increased during this period, and by 1900 silversmiths lived throughout Navajo country Nevertheless, in terms of technique, design, and skill, the Ganado smiths continued to excel.
The masculine counterpart of the squaw's art of rug weaving is silversmithing. In recent years, however, the women have been taking up silversmithing, and it is estimated that today there are nearly a hundred women silversmiths on the reservation. Since there are no silver mines on the reservation, the Navajo had to obtain his metal from outside. He used to melt down dollars, but he is now able to buy from the traders squares of silver known locally as "slugs." The Navajo silversmith is a true artist who will work incessantly for many hours and even without food until he has finished his piece of jewelry. Though he borrowed the craft from the Spaniards only about eighty years ago, he has developed it to a high degree of perfection, despite a lack of proper tools. His rings, belt buckles, bracelets, and necklaces, frequently set with native turquoise and adorned with die-work, are worn by both Navajo men and women. They are also treasured by the white people of our country and visitors from abroad. Navajo bracelets have no clasps. Each bracelet has a small gap through which one's wrist slips. If the gap is too big, the ends can be pressed together after the bracelet is on. An expert can slip over his wrist a bracelet even with a very small gap by pressing one end into the depression between the two forearm bones about two inches above the wrist joint.
At one time, only the Navajo men wore silver earrings. The women had to be satisfied with a loop of turquoise beads. The men's earrings were so tremendous that when they rode a horse they had to tie them to the back of their necks to avoid excruciating pain. Most of the silver ornaments sold in stores or to tourists are made by Navajo men who practice their craft in the railroad towns or their vicinity. The Navajo of the interior works with silver for his own pleasure. He does not have the tools of his commercialized urban brother - the anvil, blow torch, solder, compass, steel stamps, vise, nipper, pliers. For an anvil, he used a hard stone or a piece of iron from a plow or wagon. Instead of a blow torch, he has mud and sandstone forge with a hole in its bowl shaped bottom through which air is pumped from a goatskin bellows to keep the fire smoldering. His smelting fuel is charcoal made from juniper logs. His crucible in which he melts his silver is made of poor clay that is porous and brittle. He greases his sandstone molds before he pours his molten silver into them. To solder, he directs the flame from a wick through a piece of tubing to the desired point on his fine piece of silver. His solder consists of borax, saliva, and silverdust. When he has finished his work of art, which by now is tarnished from flame and handling, he dips it into a concoction of "rocksalt" in boiling water. He does this before ornamenting it with turquoise, so that he will not damage the precious stone.
Despite the simplicity and crudeness of his equipment, the Navajo silversmith of the interior is able to produce round hollow silver beads and many other ornaments of unsurpassed quality. His hollow beads are made by soldering together two semispherical pieces of silver which have been hammered on hard wood marked with indentations of various sizes and designs. The solid or raindrop bead is made without the use of a mold. He blows air through a piece of tubing on a bit of melted silver to give it the shape of a raindrop. A more recent method is to take a small snip of silver and heat it over a small indentation in charred wood, or on the so-called sandstone, which actually is pumaceous tuff. The snip of silver turns into a small ball. By this technique dozens of balls may be made at the same time. His engraving on a flat silver ornament is done with the aid of sharply pointed knives, wires, and chisels. The commercial jewelry has a lot of punched or stamped silver in it, but the Navajo prefers for himself the simpler designs.
It is really astonishing what a stolid, uninspired-looking Navajo can do with a few simple tools. My wife wanted a silver compact made for her like the one she already had a machine-made object, the product of precision tools. To our amazement though it took him a whole day because of the primitive nature of his tools before our eyes he reproduced the whole thing in every detail, including the old-style trunk hinges, by melting chunks of crude silver and pounding it into the desired shapes. In addition he decorated it with Navajo designs and turquoise. The compact is a piece of art far superior in value and beauty to the original from which it was copied.
The white purchasers expect all sorts of symbolism in their designs, so the Navajos give it to them. some Navajo designs are natural developments from pieces of silver that have come into their possession. For example, tubular beads were first made from silver buttons taken from Spanish soldiers whom they had killed in battle. And the pronged pieces in the beautiful so-called squash blossom necklace are the buttons which were sewed along the outside seams, from hip to ankle, of Spanish army officers' pants. They really represent the pomegranate blossom. The horseshoe-like piece hanging in the center of this necklace is taken from a device meaning "Godspeed" that was used on old Spanish bridles. It rested on the horse's forehead, ending in two palms turned inward. The Navajo borrowed the design and replaced the hands with two turquoise stones.
The Navajo began combining turquoise with silver, it is said, some fifty years ago. It is a poor Navajo who has no turquoise. Turquoise us found in Turquoise Mountain in Arizona; Los Carrillos, New Mexico; Sand Bernardino County, California; and Nye County, Nevada. It is also imported from Persia and Egypt. Turquoise is a basic phosphate of copper and aluminum. The copper gives it its bluish tone. The color of turquoise varies from greenish-gray, yellowish-green, apple-green, and greenish-blue to sky-blue, the latter being the most valuable. Its color fades in time and is destroyed by heat. Perspiration also affects it. A restoration of its natural color can be effected by treating it with ammonium. Bone and fossil turquoise, known as odontolite, is not true turquoise. It consists of fossil bones or teeth, colored blue by vivionite, a hydrated iron phosphate. Ammonia will not improve the color of odontolite. Pgs. 167-170