Tips to Identifying Navajo Jewelry

Identifying Navajo Jewelry

In the Four Corners region of the Southwest you will find a number of different tribes. Many of these tribes have a significant amount of registered members who handmake art for a living. One of these tribes is the Navajo. Their Nation is so large that its borders can be found in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. With such a large number of Navajo artists making jewelry the styles can be very diverse. So how do you know when you have a piece of authentic handmade Navajo jewelry?

Have you ever seen a cluster bracelet made by Navajo artist Justin Wilson?

How about a cluster piece by legendary Zuni silversmith Alice Quam?

Yes, they do look different. Plus, both of these artists (exception of early Alice Quam pieces) hallmark their work. But what if you have two older pieces that have no hallmark, how do you tell then? What about a new piece that the artist forgot to hallmark (yes this happens)? Cluster work can be a difficult piece to identify if you don’t have some clues because both Navajo & Zuni artists make this style of work.

It was the belief of many early Indian Traders that the reason you had Zuni artists that specialized in inlay and small stonework before the Navajo artists did was because they had electricity in their small village. The thought was the electricity ran the grinding wheels that allowed them to do this type of work more effectively. Navajo silversmiths would do their work out on the Navajo Nation and lots of artists didn’t have electricity. Another idea is that the Zuni people had already been manipulating stone for hundreds of years due to the importance of fetishes in their ceremonies. Other factors like what supplies the Trader had to give the silversmith should also be considered, are they selling/providing rough or cabbed turquoise?

Things to consider when Identifying Navajo Jewelry clusters:

The shapes of the stone, Navajo shapes are usually not as consistent in shape and color throughout the whole piece as Zuni work

The weight of the bracelet, usually a much heavier piece than Zuni work

The bracelet shank, Navajo work heavy triangle wire, Zuni lighter round wire

The silver work, think of Zuni work as having more drops, those classic cutout crescent moons

The turquoise, when you see Persian turquoise think Navajo. Zuni artist cut their own stones and these small cabs came to the states already cut

Remember, these assumptions don’t always hold true. It is a place to start your investigation.

Inlay was thought of in the same way as cluster work in the early days, the Zuni’s did it. I can remember when we use to tell every customer who asked about an inlay piece that it was Zuni made. Those days are gone and just like cluster work a number of Navajo artists have adopted the inlay style. You might even say a far greater number of Navajo artists are making inlay compared to Zuni artists. However, with a little practice it is much easier to determine Navajo from Zuni inlay work when identifying your piece of Navajo jewelry.

What to look for when trying to Identify Navajo inlay work:

A broken record, but Navajo silver is going to be much heavier

The design, for the most part Zuni artists are going to incorporate something from their culture like a Sunface into their design

The style of inlay work, when you come across cobble stone inlay it usually is the work of a Navajo artist

The material, Zuni inlay artists love to use synthetic opal for the whole piece as well as traditional combinations of red, white, black and blue

 

Just like cluster work, not all of these identifiers are true all the time.

The Navajos learned jewelry making before the Zuni and Hopi people. It is said that a Navajo silversmith taught a Zuni to make jewelry and then a Zuni silversmith taught a Hopi. In the early days you couldn’t tell the difference between a Navajo, Zuni and Hopi piece of jewelry. Eventually, the Zuni silversmiths started to develop their own look and then it would be the Hopi artists’ turn. Around the middle of the 20th century you had three very distinct styles of jewelry being made by these three tribes. However, overtime Navajo silversmiths have incorporated both Zuni and Hopi techniques into their work. It just happens that the Navajo people have a much larger number of silversmiths and they compete on diversity in order to sell their art.  

 

Hopi artists developed a technique called overlay. You take a bottom piece of silver that is darkened and etched and then you overlay another piece of silver that has been cutout with a design. The designs would usually be inspired by baskets, pottery and petroglyphs the Hopi had created in the past. Once the Navajo started to make this style there are techniques to identify Navajo jewelry from Hopi work.

Ways to identify Navajo overlay Jewelry:

One of the easiest ways is to check the oxidized background, Hopi work will be etched giving it texture, Navajo background will be smooth

Hopi overlay will be filled with symbolism and will have a variety of designs compared to a repeated theme like you will find in many Navajo pieces

Navajo silversmiths will many times incorporate stamping along with the overlay, this does not happen in Hopi silver

It is common that set stones and inlay work will accompany Navajo overlay pieces
If the piece has a hallmark you will find the Hopi hallmark is a symbol and a Navajo hallmark name/initials

 

Again, their definitely can be exceptions, this is your baseline.

Navajo jewelry continues to evolve, and collectors are moving away from identifying jewelry by the tribe, but instead moving towards the artist’s expression. You will find some amazing pieces of art being made that incorporate these traditional design elements into one piece.

 

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