The Introduction of Navajo Silver
It was around 1853 that Atsidi Sani (Old Smith) first learned blacksmithing from a Mexican ironworker near Mt. Taylor, New Mexico. Atsidi Sani is the man credited with introducing the art of silversmithing to the Navajo people. Although he learned blacksmithing in the early 1850's, it is believed he mastered silver only after 1868, when the Navajo returned from their incarceration at Bosque Redondo. Though the exact “birth date” of silversmithing on the Reservation remains uncertain, the Navajo at Bosque Redondo were well acquainted with metal work, pounding up bracelets from copper and brass. “They used to gamble for those bracelets,” said Chee Dodge. Government papers indicate there may have been more than one Navajo at Bosque Redondo proficient at blacksmithing. Michael Steck, Territorial Indian Superintendent of 1864, stated: “The tribe has for three centuries been engaged in planting and also far in advance of all other wild tribes in various fabricks (sic) such a blankets, baskets, ropes, saddles and bridle bits.”
What is known is that Atsidi Sani taught the art of silversmithing to his four sons and his younger brother, Slender-Maker-of-Silver. Atsidi Chon, another early silversmith, and Slender-Maker-of-Silver are both considered to be the first to set turquoise in silver around 1878.
In the early Classic period of Navajo jewelry (1880-1900) bracelets were crude, heavy, flat and plain. The silversmith's tools were primitive and few: awls, cold chisels, hammers and rough files. Silver was obtained by melting U.S. and Mexican coins into ingots, then pounding them into workable sheets. Simple designs were “scratched on the surface by rocker engraving...rocking a short-bladed chisel back and forth while moving it ahead at the same time.” Bracelets were also made from casting. Designs were carved into tufa stone molds, then molten was silver poured in and hardened. With increased soldering skills the flat band became more complex. Silversmiths soldered combinations of “triangle bars, twisted round wire and flat bars of various widths” to form new designs.
The arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1880 changed everything. With the railroad came an influx of tourists, traders, The Fred Harvey Company and better tools. Saws, shears, dividers, fine files and emery paper aided silversmiths in creating more refined pieces. Decorative stamps were copied from Mexican leatherworkers and the previously plain, silver bands were now stamped and punched.
Tourism brings design shifts to Navajo Jewelry
Yet it wasn't until the turn of the century that a true revolution in Navajo jewelry and the Navajo silver bracelet design occurred. It was then that Herman Schweizer, buyer for the Fred Harvey Company, began to order silver jewelry for the Harvey House souvenir stores. Schweizer realized that travelers wanted lighter pieces to wear in their hometowns of Topeka, San Francisco and Des Moines, so he began to provide precut turquoise, sheet silver and wire to the traders. Traders, in turn, recruited Navajo silversmiths to create jewelry that satisfied the tourist concept of “authentic” Indian design. Harvey House bracelets of the early 1900's featured thin silver bands, often set with a single turquoise or agate stone, stamped with numerous arrows, swastikas, lizards, thunderbirds and chevrons. Demand soon exceeded supply for Navajo silver and merchants in Albuquerque and Santa Fe began to mass produce items in assembly line shops, often employing non-Native workers. In time there was a backlash against this practice, but original Harvey House bracelets are considered collector's items today.
Another design shift occurred from the 1920's through the 40's when new turquoise mines opened in Nevada and Colorado and the beautiful blue green gem became more available. This was a time when Navajo jewelry, and specifically silver bracelets often featured one massive stone with a hand cut, saw-tooth bezel, or one oval stone set in the middle flanked by smaller stones on either side. Many bracelets showcased three large, irregular shaped pieces of turquoise wrapped in twist wire and decorated with silver drops. Zuni style cluster bracelets and multiple row bracelets also became popular with Navajo artists. This was the time of turquoise, turquoise and more turquoise!
During this period Navajo jewelry also became increasingly more elaborate. “Baroque” is the word anthropologist John Adair used to describe the complicated designs. Spirals of twist wire, profuse silver raindrops, feather and leaf embellishments and scallop shaped bezels were common. In the late 1930's the Indian Arts and Crafts Board encouraged artists to return to simpler styles and inaugurated the use of a stamp (U.S. Navajo) to signify that a piece was of high quality and Navajo made.
Today, one can find any style of bracelet that one desires: silver, gold, cast, ingot, plain, inlay or stamped, with outstanding sets of turquoise, coral and glittering gemstones. From the ultra modern work of Raymond Yazzie to the meticulous Classic style of Perry Shorty, from Harvey House whirling logs to the imaginative, contemporary designs of Darryl and Rebecca Begay, all are available through trading posts, museum shops and art shows across the United States.
Yet this is not the full story.
The full story of a Navajo silver bracelet lies in the life of its maker, in its wearer, in the history of a trader, in the one who admires it in a window and the one who takes it home. The story of a Navajo bracelet is revealed in the appreciative crowds at Santa Fe Indian Market or those who gaze on the treasures at a Whitehawk Antique Indian show.
A Navajo silver bracelet is the story of a people. It is Kinaalda and a young girl adorned in her grandmother's finest jewelry, or the Navajo wedding and a lovely mother-in-law gift. A Navajo bracelet is the First Laugh Ceremony, two tiny wrists and the miracle of birth. Above all the Navajo bracelet is beauty, balance and the creative energy of a talented and enduring people.
“Grandfather,”the middle aged woman said to the Navajo medicine man as they sat cross-legged atop Australia's sacred Mt. Warning, “I have a gift I'd like to offer you. Years ago I was given something by one of your people. Now it's time for me to return it to you.”