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Navajo Silversmith History

Navajo Silversmith History

Navajo Silversmith History

Navajo Mountain

Despite their inherent love of ornamentation and jewelry, the Indians of the Southwest did not learn to Silversmith until the latter part of the 19th century. 
Before that they acquired the few Silver ornaments they owned through trade with Hispanic settlers and neighbouring Plains Indians. The Plains people had acquired their Silver in trade with English, French and American Trappers. The photo above is of Navajo Mountain located in the west-central part of the Navajo Nation.
One of the first Native American Indian metal smiths was a Navajo known as Atsidi Sani who learned to form black metal from a Mexican blacksmith living in the New Mexico territory, about 1850. About 1865, Atisi was introduced to Silversmithing and thus Navajo Silversmithing began.

Navajo Silversmith Navajo Silver

Henry Dodge moved to a house near Fort Defiance and married a Navajo woman. Dodge brought with him a blacksmith and a Mexican Silversmith. Years later, after the Navajos were released from their five-year confinement at Fort Sumner, (Bosque Redondo), Atsidi Sani came to the Indian agency to observe the two Silversmiths at work and refine his primitive Navajo Silver skills. 

Atsidi Sani taught his four sons to become Navajo Silversmiths and they, in turn, taught others. Later, in the 1880s, J.L. Hubbell hired several Mexican Silversmiths to teach the craft to Navajos at his Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona. The Navajo Silversmiths learned to cast Silver in sandstone or tufa as well as produce hand-hammered work.

Hubbel Trading Post navajo-sandcast-ring.jpg

Above is a photo of Hubbel Trading Post from the early 1900's. To the right is an example of a Navajo Silver sandcast bracelet.

Turquoise, a traditional favourite of the Navajos, began to be combined with Silver work in the 1880s. J.L. Hubbell capitalized on its popularity by importing Persian Turquoise for trade to the Navajos and to be incorporated into Navajo Silver. Eventually, the local supply of Turquoise increased as more mines were opened in America. The photo below on the left is another example of a sandcasted piece made by a Navajo Silversmith and the piece on the bottom right is a hand hammered concho, also made by a Navajo Silversmith.

Sand Cast Navajo Turquoise Bracelet Navajo Silver Concho

Originally, Navajo Silversmiths made Silver Jewelry for themselves or for other Indians. After 1900, Navajo Silversmiths began creating Native American Indian
Jewelry for commercial consumption as well which was promoted by anglo Indian Traders. The availability of Turquoise and Silver, together with better Silver working tools, enabled the Navajo Silversmiths to supply the growing market among Indian Traders and Tourists who were arriving in droves by railroad to visit the Southwest. The entry of women into the craft was another measure of its rapid commercialisation. Although Navajo Silversmithing had been practiced only by men, Navajo women had begun working the metal by 1918 and began to make beautiful Native American Turquoise Jewelry as well. 
American coins were the primary source of Silver for Jewelry until 1890, after which defacing a U.S. coin was outlawed. Mexican pesos were substituted until 1930 when their export to the American Southwest was forbidden. Sterling Silver ingots with a slightly purer Silver content replaced the coins. In the 1930s, sterling Silver in convenient sheets and wire forms became increasingly available from Indian Traders. Today, the majority of Indian jewelry is still made using Sterling Silver sheet and wire. 
Zuni History - Metalworking had a different history among the Zuni. In about 1830, the Zuni learned to work with copper and brass salvaged from old kettles. They did not begin Silver crafting until four decades later. Around 1872, the Navajo Silversmith Atsidi Chon, who traded frequently with the Zuni for livestock, taught a Zuni blacksmith named Lanyade the skill of Silversmithing. Much of the earliest Zuni Silver jewelry was essentially identical to Navajo work. 

Zuni Inlay Jewelry Zuni Petit Point Turquoise Jewelry

Early Zuni pieces were plain, hand-wrought Silver occasionally decorated with simple die-stamping or rocker engraving. Around 1890 they began to include Turquoise in their work, as had their Navajo neighbours. Until about 1920, the Zuni fashioned jewelry primarily for themselves and other native peoples. By 1930, the Zuni were creating much of their jewelry for tourists. Within ten years, jewelry making had become a major source or revenue. 

The emphasis on small stone work and inlay Turquoise work began to emerge in the 1920s, developing partly from a revival of prehistoric designs. Today, this style of jewelry, needlepoint, petit point, and inlay is most strongly associated with the Zuni Jewelry making tradition. 
Hopi History - Hopi Silversmithing is of a more recent vintage than Navajo or Zuni. Early Hopi Jewelry was made from natural materials, Turquoise, shell, wood, and seeds. Silver working was introduced to the Hopi around 1890 when the Zuni Silversmith Lanyard began to trade some of his Silver Jewelry among the Hopi, apparently in return for hand-woven native cotton textiles. 

Hopi Silver Bracelet Hopi Silverwork

Lanyade eventually taught his craft to a Hopi named Sikyatala. Early hand wrought Silver beads, rings, and bracelets made by the Hopi are virtually indistinguishable from those made by Zuni and Navajo Silversmiths. Some Hopi created cast Silver work, as well. But it was not until the 1930s that a distinctive Hopi style emerged, and it developed only with non-native encouragement. 

In 1938 Dr. Harold Colton and his wife Mary Russell Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona initiated a project encouraging Hopi Silversmiths to create a unique type of Silver Jewelry that would be instantly recognized as Hopi. As a result, Silver overlay, is today the most widely recognized type of Hopi Silver work. Using designs drawn from traditional pottery, textiles and baskets, Hopi Silversmiths soldered together two sheets of Silver after cutting out designs in the top layer so that the under layer is visible. The under layer is blackened or oxidized and usually textured with chisel marks or stamp work. Turquoise, coral, and other materials occasionally have been set in Hopi overlay Jewelry, but for the most part, the elegant Silver overlay has stood alone. 


Through the 20th century, Southwestern Indian jewelry gradually diverged into clearly recognizable styles associated with Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Rio Grande Pueblos. Today, these distinctions have again begun to blur as native artisans, inspired by pioneering artists like Charles Loloma, James Little, Lee Yazzie and Preston Monongye, redefine the tradition and move toward a contemporary, more universal style of "new Indian Jewelry."

Also - see our presentation-directory page on Southwestern Turquoise Jewelry!

We hope you have enjoyed our presentation on Navajo Silversmithing, Navajo Jewelry and have gained some useful knowledge from it. We invite you to learn more about Turquoise and Turquoise Jewelry by following the links in our Learning Center to other informational pages that we have written on different topics related to Turquoise Jewelry. In addition, we would like to invite you to join our E-Mail Newsletter - about once every other month we send out a Newsletter to inform our members of what's happening with Durango Silver Company, new products, specials for our members and more. We also have a monthly drawing from our member base to give away free Turquoise Jewelry from our company. Please take a moment to become one of our friends by signing in below.

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