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Hallmarks identify the jewelry maker. Many times they are just simple letter stamps. They are not something new, but can be traced back to the 4th Century. Famous American metal smiths used them before we became a country. Paul Revere who warned the Colonial militia “the British are coming” during the American Revolution used a hallmark on his handmade silver pieces in the 1700s.>

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The Legend of C.G. Wallace

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 7:05 PM

The Legend of C.G. Wallace


Most of the public information dealing with C. G. Wallace seems to date from the article by Mike Tharp that appeared in the August 1974 issue of Arizona Highways.  The problem with that piece is that Wallace himself was the only source for the information there.  In the second paragraph Tharp states authoritatively, “During a colorful career that began in 1918, he established a rapport with the Zuni and Navajo achieved by few other white men.”  He adds the pronouncement, “An intensely private man, Mr. Wallace has repeatedly refused to allow publicity about his accomplishments.” 

         In truth, the legend of Charles Garrett Wallace, Zuni trader par excellence, was largely of his own creation.  While Wallace didn’t write about his major accomplishments, he bragged to anyone who would listen.  Only Wallace himself substantiates most of his claims, always in conversation with people who had only his interests at heart.

         Perhaps the most insulting and outrageous claim comes from Dexter Cerillo in 2008 writing “Leekya Deyuse…became famous under Wallace’s tutelage for his stylized rounded animal carvings that found their way into many jewelry forms.” Wallace may claim to have invented modern Zuni jewelry, but he can’t claim fetishes

It is a sad fact that Wallace was the most universally disliked individual in the history of White/Zuni relations.  Since I started my history of Zuni jewelry I have discovered that it is not possible to trust him about much of anything he said.

         Even the dates of his tenure in the village have been regularly misstated.  In Zuni: A Village of Silversmiths the authors write, “When the trader C. G. Wallace set up business in the pueblo in 1917, he said there were only five Zuni silversmiths there.” 

Wallace didn’t arrive in Zuni until late 1919 and for the next ten years he was merely a clerk for Charles Kelsey [the Ilfeld Co. was the actual owner, but Kelsey ran it], which gives the lie to quite a number of his pronouncements and claims.  There were certainly more than five smiths in Zuni by that time, and a growing market was being established for their work.  In 1920 there were fewer than 2,000 Zunis.

His friend Dale Stewart King (Indian Silver Vol Two, 1976) has real difficulty with Wallace’s dates, which are usually at odds with other “experts.”   One I particularly enjoy had to do with some writers claiming the first Zuni inlay was done in 1935.  Wallace complained to King, “I had sold more than a million dollars worth of it before then.”  King adds, “He also told me he had started Zunis inlaying silver before 1920. There’s that pesky date again. King addresses Wallace’s faulty dates half a dozen times before saying, “Mr. Wallace’s dates...pose some problems. I surely am not about to doubt his memory.”  Somebody should have.

It also seems he is the source of Dan Simplicio’s childhood jewelry making, telling King that Dideos “…helped to encouraged Dan to become a good craftsman. He taught Dan to make silver coins and to make leaves of different sizes.  This was in the middle ‘20’s.” [sic]  Simplicio was born in 1917 which would make him eight years old at that time.

Another ridiculous claim he made was his involvement in the invention of needlepoint and cluster.  He claimed when turquoise got scarce he took boxes of scrap and doled them out to his best artists, who then made cluster pieces.  This is totally impossible unless matching the stones didn’t matter. I told Bryant Waatsa about this claim and he snorted.

Joe Tanner told me once that when he got in a shipment of stone he would pick it for hours to find matching colors.  When Lee and Mary Weebothe got the rock they would pick again, and give half of it back.

One of the things that makes it appear he was an Indian trader earlier than he was is the application for a license to trade in 1920.  It was not a license to run a business, but merely to work in the Kelsey trading post.  They had to get such a clearance for every employee, even the Indians.

Wallace was very critical of the Zunis, saying they were poor (15 beds in the entire pueblo, for example) and lazy, sleeping and gambling their days away. Quoted by Tharp, he said, “When I came to Zuni they gambled, they played, and they didn’t do much work at all.” 

Debora Slaney wrote of Wallace, “During that first year, Wallace set out to become acquainted with the village of Zuni”…He “was also known as Mujugi (Night Owl) for his tendency to do business with jewelers in the evening.”  She quoted C. G. as her source for the claim: “As soon as I arrived in Zuni, I made it a point to get acquainted…As soon as we closed the Trading Post, I would select certain sections of the Village, and go visiting—“   

It is a stretch to believe that a clerk, fresh off the train, would be doing business directly with the people at all.  It is true the Zunis began to call him “Owl Man” but for very different reasons than he said.   Many Zunis have told me over the years that Wallace was called “Owl” because he prowled the streets in the middle of the night, looking for houses where no one was home, or slipping into kivas to see if there was anything valuable to take.  His brother Robert was called “Gomeh” which means crybaby, or whiner.

When various writers say Wallace was a consummate trader by 1919, they are missing the fact that he arrived in Zuni in October of that year.  He was certainly a fast study.

Silver: Coin, German & Otherwise

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 6:50 PM

Silver: Coin, German & Otherwise

        Up front, we are talking about three hundredths of one percent between sterling and coin.

         In her 1936 pamphlet on Navajo silver, Margery Bedinger gives three lengthy paragraphs—half a page—to explaining the difference between sterling silver and coin silver.  She states, “This difference is too small to greatly affect the properties of the alloy...” (1936:15) Having said that, she spends two and a half more paragraphs discussing the two different alloys.  But she asserts that the difference is “…a fact that becomes significant when one is trying to date an old piece of jewelry, for the two sorts of money have different colors and take on a different luster when made up and so can easily be distinguished by the expert.” (1936:16)

         John Adair, writing just a few years later, claims that the actual working of the silver, like annealing, will affect color.  He concludes, “Therefore, individual pieces can never be dated accurately on the basis of color.” (1944:29)

Edison Sandy Smith

        It is true, however, that silver and nickel oxidize differently.  Nickel turns skin green, silver turns black, and nickel seems to oxidize faster.  But immediately after buffing it is difficult to tell them apart.  I use the sound method—nickel has a tinny sound when dropped on a glass display case.

Most writers simply add to the confusion:  Mexican pesos were supposedly purer silver and thus easier to work. According to coin dealers this is not true:  Coin silver was almost the same in both countries (U.S. .900, Mexico .903) until the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when Mexican coins gradually contained less and less precious metal.  It is also known that Navajo smiths commonly added a few pennies to melted silver to stretch it out a little, which would turn sterling into coin silver or worse. Many dealers claim they can tell coin silver from sterling at a glance, but considering the diverse practices, and very small difference in purity of various coinages, this seems very unlikely.

Most people can’t tell nickel from silver and don’t know that German silver contains no silver at all.  None.   Nor does the deceptively named Nickel silver.  No silver.  

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Frank & Elizabeth Vacit

Thursday, May 3, 2018 5:56 PM

Frank & Elizabeth Vacit

        In the 1940 Federal census Frank Vacit (25) was living in the household of Old Man Leekya, married to his eldest daughter Elizabeth (21).   Leekya was the only member of the family listed as a silversmith.  Frank gave his occupation as “unpaid family farm worker” and his income for the year $180.  But under “other income” he checked “yes”.  There is no explanation.

         In the famous C. G. Wallace sale catalogue from 1975 there are only a couple of unremarkable pieces attributed to Frank.  This is likely because of the Vacit’s friendship with Shirley and Pat Kelsey.   At one time Shirley said they would sit at the kitchen table in the wee hours, discussing designs.  One of the most eccentric of these is the goblet and serving tray that was part of the Druckman collection.  The silver tubing used for the cups came from the Newcomb friend Gouverneur Morris.


Elizabeth Leekya Vacit never gets billing for the jewelry they made together, which is odd considering her family connection. Shirley Newcomb Kelsey knew them well and took a number of photos of them working at the same bench.  She said that the couple always worked together. Many wives got no credit.

         They made so many remarkable pieces it is hard to choose which ones to spotlight.  One of Shirley’s photos shows Frank holding a fancy inlaid bit.  This magnificent piece is pictured in color in the book,  Bridles of the Americas Vol I.  The Vacits probably used ancient pottery designs more than anyone else.

         Frank liked to work outside the box.  To make overlay inlay the artist has to saw out the design from a plate of silver.  Tiny holes are drilled to accommodate the saw blade.  Usually those holes are cut out with the design.  One buckle leaves the holes visible with an almost invisible trail to the cutout.


       Most dealers believe they can tell a Vacit piece at a glance, and that is probably more true than for any other Zuni jeweler.  Though they never repeat the exact same designs, unlike lesser artists, the Vacit stonework is striking.  They managed to get the reddest coral and the bluest turquoise of anyone, but it is a mystery where it came from.

         The very style is distinctive.  Not the designs, but the work itself.  They did some of the most elaborate inlay ever.  There is a chanelwork bow guard with two eagles that illustrates the point.  No other artist did such dazzling work.

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The Fabled Zuni Turquoise Mine

Thursday, May 3, 2018 5:45 PM

The Fabled Zuni Turquoise Mine

        Most chroniclers of the Spanish invasion, several attempts over two centuries, found the subject of turquoise irresistible. The Zunis were imagined long before they were found.  The magic number was seven, and the Spanish tried over an over to find the “seven islands of Atlantis, seven great caves, and, of course, the “Seven Cities of Cibola” where there were vast stores of gold and turquoise.  Boy were they disappointed.

         But the notion of a Zuni source of the blue stone was persistent.   Sam Yost, writing for the Santa Fe Weekly Gazettein 1858, devotes two paragraphs to the prized stone he calls Chalquiguithe, “a bluish green stone, something after the torquoise [sic], is found very rarely however, and prized higher than anything else by the Indians.”

         “It is found, I believe, somewhere near Zuni.”  (Quoted in Woodward, 1938:44)  Over the years several older Zunis have told me the mine does exist, but it is a taboo subject and the location moves around depending on the teller.  More importantly, I have never seen stone attributed to this fabled mine.

         The inimitable Frank Cushing went looking for the Zuni mine the first winter he was there, 1879, and it became quite an adventure.  On his first stop with a Mormon bishop his saddlebags were ransacked and he lost most of his food and the grain he had brought for the mule.

This small green stone is about the size of a little finger nail was apparently an offering found years ago at Hawikuh is likely from the Zuni Mountain mine.

This small green stone is about the size of a little finger nail was apparently an offering found years ago at Hawikuh is likely from the Zuni Mountain mine. 

       They crossed the Continental Divide and found the ancient diggings Cushing was hunting.  His companions went on their way and Frank estimated he was seventy-five miles from Zuni.  He discovered his companions had stolen the nice rope he borrowed from the trader, Graham.  The replacement rope was poor and the next night the mule disappeared as well.

         But he had found numerous ancient diggings, some still being mined.  Cushing came upon “two immense excavations—one seventy-five by forty-five feet in diameter.”  The stones he describes must have been azurite and malachite, cousins to turquoise and all of them found with copper.

         Without his mule or food, in midwinter and not far from the Divide in the Zuni Mountains, he set off for Zuni alone, following the animal’s tracks.  The second night he was struck by a blizzard and high winds, making it difficult to keep a fire.

         Near death several times Cushing finally arrived back in the village.  But he was sure he had seen the source of the Chalchihuitl though it is vague as to what the stone actually was.  But there is a turquoise mine not far from Blue Water, southwest of Grants, NM.

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The Chalchihuitl (Turquoise) Question

Wednesday, April 18, 2018 3:52 PM

The Chalchihuitl (Turquoise) Question

         This is the title of Chapter VI in the seminal book Turquoisby Joseph E. Pogue [who left the e off the end], published in 1915 by The National Academy of Sciences.  More than 100 years later it is still a question.

         Chalchihuitl is an Aztec word referring to a very valuable greenish stone.  The invading Spanish assumed it meant turquoise, which they found in some quantity; carved, inlayed, made into beads and masks, gifted to the gods and high ranking dead men.

         One nagging question is how the pre-Columbian Southwest has kept the secret of its extensive turquoise mines pretty well hidden all these years.  At this point more than two hundred ancient mines are known.

         There is a much greater mystery that nobody seems to address at all.  1. Turquoise artifacts have been found in Mexico that date back almost two thousand years B. C.  2. Much of this stone is identified as coming from the Cerillos mining district. 3.  Archaeologists have not found evidence of mining at that site before about 900 A. D.  At least one of those statements must be false, and it is probably not #1.

         The Spanish followed the trail of turquoise, always to the North.  It was one of the excuses for “discovering” and conquering the Seven Cities of Gold, the mythical Cibola.  The Spaniards didn’t think much of the blue rock, but they were always hungry for the yellow metal.

The name chalchihuitl stuck to the blue stone for several centuries.  In the end the Europeans were not sure which rock it referred to.  For a while they thought it was jade, but that gemstone is not found in the New World either.  The jade artifacts found in tombs are really a kind of jadeite.

The mystery part is that this precious mineral was not found in what became Mexico.  This belief has been stated in print for many years and Joseph Pogue says quite emphatically, “No important deposits of turquoise are known in Mexico.”

Joe Dan Lowry’s encyclopedic work, Turquoise(2010), explodes this notion.  “There are numerous turquoise mines that are located in what is now modern-day Mexico.”  Either these mines were unknown to archaeologists or they were simply dismissed, for reasons known only to the academics, who tend to stick together.

cerrillos turquoise

Lowry discusses pre-Colombian mines from Sonora to Baja California.  He states that turquoise mining began in Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico as early as 500 BC.  Adding that people don’t know that Mexico  is “currently one of the larger producers of Turquoise in the world.”


         The first great chroniclers of the Aztec world all mentioned chalchihuitl; like Bernal Diaz, who wrote that the Aztecs thought it more valuable than emeralds.  There are many such descriptions.  Now we are told that the Aztec word applies to any green or greenish stone.

         Part of the problem comes from how different languages define blue and green.  In Aztec the valuable stone was “green” but much of the turquoise found in Mexico is clearly what we call “blue.”   Only a few kinds of turquoise would be described as green.

Navajo, for example, has only one word for both colors and the shade is indicated by other elements in the sentence.  Like robin egg blue, sky blue, grass green and so on.  Clearly the leaves of a cottonwood tree are not the same color as the needles of a juniper.  English terms them both as “green”.

The Franciscan Fathers at St. Michaels, Arizona, compiled an Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language.  In it, the color green is “like water scum.”  A vivid image, pretty descriptive, though I don’t see a lot of pond scum around here.

It seems appropriate that the oldest, largest and most valuable prehistoric diggings in North America, generally known as Cerillos, are named after the central, unimpressive hill known as Mt. Chalchihuitl.  At one time it was believed that most of the stone found in Mexico has its source here, not far from Santa Fe, NM.

Likewise it was assumed that all, or most, of the turquoise found at Chaco Canyon was from these mines.  As our detection abilities grow, so does our knowledge and apparently there were extensive trade routes east and west across the desert southwest and turquoise travelled both directions, not just north and south into Latin America.

The Cerillos mining district covers an area of several square miles and a number of prehistoric diggings.  The more northerly area was first called the Castilian and later Turquoise Hill.  One deposit has gone by many names, including the Tiffany, which never had anything to do with the jewelry store of that name.

In 1892 it was reported that a single stone from the Castilian sold for an astonishing $4,000.

Early in the last century the Tiffany was owned by the father of Brice Sewell, an artist, Indian art expert and trader who was close to C. G. Wallace, which suggests that Wallace had access to that stone.  Unfortunately the mine was pretty well played out by the Thirties.

I recently found this interesting item.


On January 20, 1978, Mt. Chalchihuitl was enrolled into the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. 

There is a second Tchalchihutl in New Mexico, yet another source of turquoise, in Cíbola County near the town of Bluewater.  These Tchalchihutl Mines are also on the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties.


This raises the ghost of an old treasure tale.  Rumors of an ancient turquoise mine in the Zuni Mountains fascinated Frank Cushing, who foolishly trekked into the mountains in the winter, lost his mule, and nearly died in a blizzard.  All he found was an old Mexican copper digging.  But copper and turquoise are intertwined.


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