Native American Sterling Silver Jewelry | What Makes it Unique?
Although Native American sterling silver jewelry wasn’t introduced until the 1800s, sterling silver originated in the 12th century in England. From its beginnings as a material for coins, sterling silver is now a hallmark of Native American jewelry. The Navajo were the first tribe to incorporate silver into their jewelry, but it quickly spread to other tribes. Today, silver is one of the most recognizable aspects of Native American jewelry. Here’s how silver became integrated with Native American culture as well as a breakdown of some popular silversmithing techniques.
What Is Sterling Silver?
Sterling silver is not actually pure silver. Instead, it is an alloy comprised of 92.5% silver and 7.5% of other metals, usually copper. Pure silver is much too soft for use in things like jewelry and utensils, so it is combined with another metal to help increase its durability.
Sometimes silver is combined with other metals like germanium, zinc, and platinum, or other additives like boron and silicon. These are meant to improve some qualities of the silver, like increasing its resistance to tarnish.
Native American Sterling Silver Jewelry
Silversmithing was introduced to the Native Americans by the Spaniards. Atsidi Sani, a member of the Navajo tribe, is credited as being the first Native American silversmith. After he learned the technique, he passed the knowledge on to his four sons. They, in turn, taught the trade to others, and the art of silversmithing spread to other Southwest Native American tribes, including the Zuni and Hopi. Native Americans did not, at first, have their own source of silver. Instead, they worked with silver they acquired through trade from settlers, melting down things like coins and teapots and reworking them into jewelry. Today, artists still repurpose old coins into their jewelry, harkening back to this time-honored tradition.
As the use of silver spread to different tribes, artists began to develop and refine their unique techniques to create the various styles of Native American sterling silver jewelry that you see today. Techniques like overlay, casting, and stamping have become hallmarks for different tribes.
In the 1920s, the American Southwest began to become a popular tourist destination with the advent of the railroad. Tourists from all over the country purchased Native American jewelry, especially turquoise and silver pieces. This boom in popularity made jewelry making an important economic channel for Native Americans and encouraged more creativity.
The overlay technique is most commonly seen in Hopi jewelry. To create overlay jewelry, it requires two pieces of silver. The second piece of silver has a design cut out of it, and it is then soldered onto the first piece, creating a negative space design. The design is usually oxidized to create contrast.
Later, the Hopi began incorporating mosaic into their overlay work, adding shards of gems, coral, and other materials to create stunning, colorful designs.
Although the overlay technique is best-known in Hopi jewelry, other tribes like the Navajo use this technique as well. Usually, Hopi artists will include a finely-etched texture on the base layer of silver, while Navajo artists will leave it smooth.
Indian tribes had already used casting long before silversmithing was introduced. But with the introduction of silver, Native American artists learned how to cast silver using local materials. Two casting methods for Native American sterling silver jewelry are tufa casting and sand casting.
Tufa casting is accomplished by creating a mold out of tufa stone, which is made of compressed volcanic ash. It is soft, porous, and easy to carve. To create the mold, a tufa stone is cut in half then rubbed together to create a smooth surface. A hole is added at the top to allow the silver to be poured in. Then, the artist carves their design into each half. The stone is then carbonized by fire and clamped together before the molten silver is poured in. The resulting piece of jewelry has a unique texture due to the porous nature of the stone.
Sand casting uses a type of sand that has a clay-like texture to create the mold. One half of the mold is packed with sand, and then the model is carved into the mold. The same is done with the second half of the mold. The two halves are then fastened together, and molten silver is poured in. The resulting jewelry has a distinctive matte texture. Sand casting is widely considered one of the most difficult silversmithing techniques to master. The Navajo are best known for their sand casting prowess, with several masters still at work today. Each piece made with a sandcast is truly one of a kind, as the mold is destroyed after use.
Navajo silversmiths are well-known for their silver stamping techniques. Many stamp designs have been passed down through generations, bringing tradition to modern Native American sterling silver jewelry. To create a stamped silver piece, the artist cuts a sheet of silver into the desired shape and puts it on a steel block. The stamp, generally made of iron or steel, is lined up with the silver, and the artist uses one skillful hammer strike to make the imprint. If the piece needs to be shaped, it is heated and molded into its final shape.
At Southwest Silver Gallery, we’re proud to offer a wide range of Native American sterling silver jewelry. We offer authentic pieces from the Navajo Indians, the Zuni Indians, the Hopi Indians, and the Santo Domingo Indians. These pieces showcase the unique techniques mastered and passed down from Native American silversmiths to artists working today. Each piece is handcrafted by award-winning artists, and most pieces come with a certificate of authenticity. Browse our full collection of silver jewelry today.