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What is a Hallmark?

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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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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The Leo Poblano Snake Dancer

Tuesday, April 17, 2018 12:35 PM

The Leo Poblano Snake Dancer

  Looking at the small black and white photo on page eighty-four of the famous C. G. Wallace sale catalogue from 1975, it is difficult to understand how this inlayed figure has become the iconic work of the master stone cutter Leo Poblano. 

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