Navajo Jewelry Making Techniques - Ingot

Jewelry Making Techniques - Ingot

In-got /ˈiNGɡət/ (noun) – a block of steel, gold, silver, or other metal, typically oblong in shape.

When the Navajo first learned how to make silver jewelry, they had to be very innovated. The luxury of modern tools or a supply store where they could purchase silver was still decades away. Instead they would collect silver coins until they had enough to make a piece of jewelry. How they turned that silver into a piece of jewelry involved a couple of different techniques. One of these techniques was using an ingot. Today’s silversmiths pride themselves on knowing how to use this technique because it is what the first smiths used. Plus, it is a labor-intensive process that requires a number of steps, almost like the artist becomes more invested in the work.  

I try and imagine the setting in which those early smiths made their jewelry. Maybe they constructed an additional hogan next to their family hogan to work silver, or they just created a space inside the family hogan. The workspace would be a dirt floor with a limited number of tools. Then they would have to figure out a way to heat the silver to over 1700 degrees so it could melt. This heating the silver would happen several times during the course of making the piece. These early pieces would be thick and would have a simple design. Also, they wouldn’t have any turquoise. It was a new craft where the craftsman was proud to have acquired the skill and it would become the mission of Navajo silversmiths to perfect this craft.

A number of silversmiths will make pieces of jewelry using the ingot technique. Many times, you will find they have stamped the inside of the work INGOT. Navajo silversmith Derrick Gordon is going to take us through the process of making a piece using ingot techniques.

Liquifying the Silver

New Mexico which included Arizona didn’t become part of the United States until 1848. This is very close to the time the Navajo first learn silversmithing. In 1851 the United States Government shows up by building Fort Defiance. The Navajo are in contact with soldiers from this fort and also with the Mexicans in the area. That means they would have access to silver coins. Our first pieces of Navajo silver jewelry are going to be made from these coins. You will find a handful of Navajo silversmiths that still use only coins to make their ingot pieces. Coin silver is 90% silver, commonly used sterling silver is 92.5% silver. It is not much of a difference, but the coin silver is softer and easier to work than sterling.

When an artist goes to purchase sterling silver from a supply house they will pay over the spot (market) price. The supply house will offer different over spot prices depending on how much you spend with them. For example, say the market price of silver is $15 and the price offered is $1 over spot, that means the artist is going to pay $16 per troy ounce of silver. That price would be for something like plate silver, but when the artist wants certain wires, they can be significantly over the spot price. During the jewelry making process the artist will start to build a pile of scrap silver. Now, they can take this scrap and sell it back at a discounted price to the supply house and then buy silver for their next piece above the market price. It is a better decision to use thr scrap.

Derrick makes his ingot pieces using coin and scrap silver. This example is using scrap silver.

Blocks of Silver & Rolling (Hammering)

Once the amount of silver needed has been collected the next step in the process is to get it into a working shape. The silver will have to be heated until it reaches a liquid form. Derrick does this by using an acetylene torch. Early smiths would have used a fire and a bellow to move the air to make the fire burn hotter. Once the silver reaches a liquid form it is poured into a form where the silver will once again harden. These forms can take on any desired shape. Once traders became involved in promoting the business and working different silversmiths, they would often supply one once plugs to the silversmith. Derrick uses a 4” x 3” form.

This is just the beginning. After the silversmith has made the ingot the silver is going to be manipulated into a desired shape to begin making the piece of jewelry. In the old days a hammer and an anvil would have been the equipment to manipulate the silver. Today, a number of silversmiths incorporate the use of a roller. Derrick uses a roller where he continuously feeds the ingot until he gets the shape of silver he wants to work.

The Design

You will see that Derrick is working on making a naja for his necklace. He has drawn out his design and then begins the process of bending the silver into the shape he needs. After that he will use files to get the desired look. One reason he has used an ingot to create this naja is that he can’t buy a piece of triangle wire this size. This is a very labor-intensive process of filing and the end result gives him a very unique look. A silversmith who wanted to make this same style would not be able to imitate the design by buying wire from a supply shop. The result would be a very different look and not as impressive.

This process describes what it means to use ingot silver. We will look at other jewelry making techniques in the future to help you understand how your piece of authentic Native American jewelry was made.

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