About Indian Jewelry

I have been reading some of the threads here dealing with American Indian jewelers and the works they create and thought I would share some of my own experiences. I owned an Indian jewelry store for twenty years, where we sold my own work and that of others. I also sold my work to galleries and stores, at shows and pow-wows, primarily in California but also in Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Everything we carried was Indian made using only natural turquoise. Why am I so certain? For my own work, for example, I bought rough Red Mountain turquoise from the owner of the mine and then cut it myself. As to the work of others, for one thing I dealt with traders whom I had found to be reliable. Also, I knew some of the artists and bought directly from them: for example, Rick Manuel, the deservedly well-known Papago silversmith, along with his son, would stay with us for a few days a couple of times a year and use my shop to make pieces to sell to other stores in the area. It made not the slightest difference to me that he was a direct competitor of mine selling high-end pieces to my competition in my own city.

As a rule, competition is really not an issue among us. At a show in Tucson, former U. S. Senator Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell, the renowned Cheyenne silversmith, was set up selling his own jewelry. A pair of customers came to me and said the senator had sent them to me as I had what hey were looking for and he had not.

Regarding the stones used by others whose work we carried, there are ways we use to tell natural turquoise from artificial, or, if you prefer, “stabilized” turquoise. First and foremost is its color. I believe, though others will certainly disagree, that the beautiful blues and greens of natural turquoise in all its glorious variations simply cannot be matched artificially. Some years have passed since I left the jewelry business for the practice of law—from which I am now retired and returning to jewelry—and there have surely been significant improvements in the color of dyes used over time, but I am convinced that nature can never be perfectly represented through artifice.

Touching the tip of your tongue to turquoise will often reveal an artificial stone by the way it feels due to its porosity. A knife blade will not scratch gem-grade turquoise, but instead will simply leave a silvery mark; one surefire way to tell whether the stone in a piece you are considering is as good as you are being told it is is to pull out a knife and start to run the edge across it. If it’s artificial or low-grade turquoise, you can be certain that the seller will stop you instantly.

Among Indian people, the tribal affiliation of others is so utterly irrelevant that I cannot remember having ever been asked a question about it by anyone but non-Indian people. The situation is, of course, just the same among Indian silversmiths. My own style has necessarily been influenced by many persons of various tribal affiliations. My greatest influence was that of some Navajo silversmiths whom I am honored to call my friends—namely the internationally renowned Orville Tsinnie, as well as Richard and John Begay–who showed me the right way to make jewelry. Again, tribes really don’t matter at all, at least not to us. I happily admit that my style is largely Navajo, but then there’s Hopi and a little bit of Zuni as well. All of them have influenced the style of my original designs. I’m not alone in working that way. For example, Ben Nighthorse was heavily influenced by Charles Loloma, who was heavily influenced by Zuni inlay style as well as his own Hopi overlay style, which was actually invented by non-Indians in 1946 to give returning WWII Hopi veterans a trade.

Anyway, those are some of my experiences with Indian jewelry. I hope some of it is helpful in providing a little insight into the truth about it, at least as I came to know it.

Michael

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Michael I can empathize with you about people thinking they can prove if a stone is real turquoise or fake. I worked at Zion National Park back in 73 in the lodges curio shop. There was one high end Navajo bracelet that was basically a large slightly polished boulder of turquoise set in a beautifully worked bezel. A couple came in and I ended up selling it to them after many questions. (I wish I had the money then to buy it, it was solid Nevada fox) Two hours later the couple came back and screamed at me about it being fake. They had used a bastard file on the side of it. They showed me the file and it had the residue from the turquoise on it. According to them it proved it was fake, because to them turquoise would not look like that when filed. My manager came over looked at the bracelet and you could see her getting mad. She didn’t say a word, went and reversed the charge on their card, and told them to leave. After she sent it to a man in Springdale to have him re-polish the stone. The couple went to the Head park ranger and wanted me arrested. They were upset they were not allowed to keep the bracelet.

I’ve admired Native American art work and in particular jewelry since that long ago summer. It also irks me when I see items that are made overseas being passed off as real native American art/jewelry. My foster Daughter Is 100 percent Navajo. She taught me about her culture in small ways. I only had her with us during the school year then she was back with her family south of Page. I’m proud to be Ma Shimani (don’t know how to spell it) to her children.

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MIchael,
Very interested in this and it is very helpful. I have been studying American Indian jewelry for several years, reading and looking at various illustrated books about the history of it, the various artists and the evolving styles. Some of the techniques are interesting to me, particularly the use of complex stamping and raising and tuffa casting. I want to make some jewelry inspired by American Indian jewelry, using the techniques, but not imitating the designs, which to me is part of the Native American patrimony, culture and tradition. So far my ambitions are still in the early stages, so I’m still just thinking about what I would do and how I would do it. Since many of the symbols used are very basic and timeless, it is hard not to imitate, particularly when the beautiful American Indian designs are all floating around in my head. I’m thinking of making things that use Arts and Crafts Style motifs, which I also admire a lot. I’m interested in any comments you may have on this and in how you feel about the inevitable knock-offs of American Indian jewelry one sees everywhere. -royjohn

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Hi royjohn:

I can only speak for myself, but I don’t have a problem with non-Indian people using the designs of others to inform and develop their own style. My own problem with such efforts is when such work is then passed off as something it is not. An English professor of mine improved our writing by assigning us some famous passages from illustrious writers such as Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, the style and structure of which we were to imitate. Of course none of us wrote anything to compare with the original, but it was a most effective way to impart understanding of another style to improve our own. Just so with jewelry.

For example, the only apprentice I ever took on was a Choctaw-Cherokee teenager. He learned my style and I encouraged him to copy it as closely as he could. He became a decent silversmith–though mainly I kept him from dropping out of high-school–and, of course, his work was different from mine, though its influence was unmistakable. The thing is, I would have done the same for any troubled kid who asked me to teach them as sincerely as Jimmy did. He would have never misled anyone about the origin of his work, and that is all I care about.

Again, I mentioned Rick Manuel. We both did pieces with desert scenes in overlay, but he was raised in southern Arizona on the Papago reservation, and I, being an urban-Indian, was raised in Los Angeles and on the southern California desert. The result was that he used Saguaro cactus and their sacred mountain, Baboquivari Peak, while I used Joshua Trees, junipers, and the Saddleback Buttes of the Antelope Valley. Our styles were similar but were world’s apart, and each was unique.

If this is the kind of jewelry that you want to make, then I encourage you to emulate Indian designs as closely as you can because that is how you will develop your own style. My impression of you from what you said is that you will never try to pass your own work off as someone else’s, Indian or not.

You mentioned tufa stone casting. I absolutely love doing it. I am fascinated by how violent it is pouring molten silver into stone and having it squirt out of the airholes into the water in a washtub, and by how the emerging piece is something that can’t be exactly duplicated any other way. The simplicity of such an ancient technique also appeals to me greatly. I always used a Prestolite air/acetylene torch, which is very common among Indian silversmiths, though I’m sure that some of my customers would have preferred that I use a gasoline blowtorch while sitting on a blanket. Far from it. And what I will be using in my new studio that I’m putting together in my apartment is a water torch. Traditional? Not at all, but that’s irrelevant, as the finished work is what is important.

All I can really tell you is to strive to perfect your own style by imitating work you admire, but simply to respect the people and culture that came before you. From what you say, I am sure you will.

Michael

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Michael,
Thanks so much for your reply! I am sure that you are an excellent silversmith…maybe you can post some of your work here sometime…but also you are a great writer and storyteller! You really enrich our forum with your contributions. -royjohn

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Hi aggie.p:

Turquoise varies so much in hardness, from chalk to gem-grade, that it defies making any hard and fast rules about it. Certainly not all natural turquoise will withstand steel. Gem-grade will, but that has always been rare, much more so now than when I was working in the seventies and eighties. If you mistreat turquoise badly enough you will always manage to hurt it. As far as I am concerned, the customers you describe deserved the damage to the stone that they foolishly caused. I’ve actually trimmed a little from decent stones with a hand file, and I’ve used the stones in my own work. They weren’t as hard as the Red Mountain stones I mentioned, but then they did not go for as high a price either. They were still very good stones, just not as good.

The Navajo people are very dear to me. As a rule, I have always found them to be open, generous, and ready to laugh. In the early days when we were just getting started, we were at a show in Los Angeles, where we were placed next to a Navajo couple who had come to sell Ojos de Dios. We had both used what money we had to get to the show with our goods, and if we wanted to eat or get home, we had to sell some merchandise. We both made barely enough, so in order to eat, they made fry-bread in the rear of their booth, and we made beef stew in a crockpot under a table in ours. The result was that we all ate very well for the three days of that show.

Of course it is possible to piss them off. At another show in Los Angeles, a Navajo silversmith named Harry Yabeny and I were interviewed one morning for a radio program. I went first and mentioned that my people had in fact learned silversmithing in the southeast a couple of hundred years or so before the Navajo. We had known each other for awhile and were friends, but I think Harry didn’t speak to me for a year afterwards.

I always told my customers exactly what they were getting, with the result that a number of them became my friends; for example, one of them spoke at my mother’s funeral. Neither I nor any other decent silversmith I knew ever made our jewelry with anything in mind other than that it last as close to forever as possible. I know this goes against conventional wisdom–for perfectly valid reasons–but when we set stones, it was not in anticipation of it ever needing to be repaired. I always told anyone buying a piece of my work that if they ever needed it repaired they bring it to me, and that I would never charge them. About the only way to damage my work was to smash the stones into concrete and crack them. My stones did not fall out: their bases were cut at the right angle, and, horror of horrors, I and everyone I knew used sawdust and superglue. I expect to draw flak for that, but it worked for us. And far from being a sign of shoddy Indian jewelry, the opposite was generally, if not always, true.

Michael

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Hi royjohn:

Wow. Thank you. I will be happy to post some photos of my work, though that is going to be awhile. I no longer have any of my tools–I will miss the stamps I made most of all. At the moment, I am awaiting the arrival of my new Durston Superior jewelers bench, something I would never have dreamed of buying back then. So far my budding studio has only a railroad track anvil on a stand I built, and I’ve been restoring some old jewelry tools. I have a long way to go before I start to produce anything, assuming, of course, that I can remember how to make jewelry at all.

Michael

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I agree, I enjoy your posts. I’m a long-time admirer of Native American jewelry, but my ancestry is Mexican. That’s led me to WANT to create jewelry that expresses my own ancestry, but my family’s history is muddied and complex. Anyway, I took would love to see photos of your future work.

And I feel for you about small torches–I was forced last year to sell my one “real” torch (a Little Torch) and it broke my heart.

Hi gerrysotherkid:

Thank you kindly. My wife is Mexican, second generation American, and I do understand what you are saying about your family’s history being muddied and complex. Her family is huge–eight girls and one boy–and she cannot trace its history beyond her grand parents. There is seemingly a sort of disconnect that occurred at the border when her parents immigrated here (legally, I might add.) I venture to guess that there is the same disconnect in your family history.

Personally, I don’t give a fig about a person’s ethnicity when it comes to making jewelry. As I have mentioned elsewhere, not only do I not mind in the slightest when someone copies my designs, or anyone else’s for that matter, as long as they are honest about their work and do not try to mislead anyone about its origin.

As to my torch, I think I might have found it at Rio:
Ready Ox EX-5 Oxygen Concentrator Torch System - RioGrande. I’m of a mind that it is better to apologize than to ask permission. If I find myself having to argue the legality, or, rather the permissibility, of a torch then I think this one might well give the best grounds of argument. My wife and I are fully committed to me producing jewelry in as yet unknown quantities. With the purchase of my new Durston jewelers’ workbench there is no turning back, so there is no longer reason to even consider a torch that won’t do the job I need it to do. Other than pieces that must be light such as earrings, my work runs toward being heavy because I am so heavily influenced by traditional Navajo work.

If you want to make jewelry, then make it and don’t worry about what or who informs your style. I once made a pendant the day after I went to a rock concert featuring Heart. Its design was my interpretation of the colored lights illuminating the band. Did I reveal the origin of my design to the customer who bought it? No. Sources of artistic inspiration are and ought to be private unless the artist chooses to reveal them. Leonardo breathed not a word about the model or any other detail about what inspired him to produce the Mona Lisa. I am not seeking to elevate myself to his level, but only to use him to learn how a supreme master of his art went about explaining it. In short, he didn’t. Where an artist is from, who are his relations, and how he is inspired to do what he does are entirely irrelevant to me so long as he doesn’t lie.

Michael

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I was just thinking about authenticity and remembered a tourist couple seeking it. Years ago at a mall show in Tucson again, there were probably thirty of us silversmiths, sandpainters, and a weaver. A couple of tourists came up to me with confused looks on their faces. One of them said, “Excuse me. We have come all the way here from Connecticut to see some real Indians. Would you please tell me where we might go to see some?” I was taken aback, as what I wanted to say was, “Lady, you are looking at one and standing in the middle of a bunch of them.”

I had to think for a moment about this question that struck me as being the same as if they were standing on a cruise ship in the middle of the Pacific and announcing a desire to see the ocean. So instead of suggesting that they return to Connecticut and read an elementary book about American History, I said, “Oh, what you need is to go to the reservation and you’re in luck. The Papago Reservation is just a few miles down the highway.” The Papago Reservation is certainly a good place to go see Papagos, but where they live is as welcoming to gawkers as any other reservation, though perhaps just a touch less so. It is not a happy place. I told them that if they drove fifteen or twenty minutes into the reservation, they would find a real Indian trading post.

I was telling them nothing but the truth, though I did not point out to them that it sold things like washtubs, beans, and Hosteen Charlie hats (think Billy Jack.) I also failed to point out that not only did it lack shiny baubles to interest them, it was surrounded by a twelve foot chain-link fence topped by razor wire. It gives the unmistakable impression that the white traders who operate it are not held in high regard by the local populace.

So I directed them to what I suppose they were looking for, though I cannot say for certain how they were likely to feel about it. Seeing it could have been a learning experience for them, but I suspect that they were once again disappointed at the absence of braves, squaws, and papooses.

Michael

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While my brother and I are not Native American, some of our jewelry has a Native American look. That is because we learned from our father who learned from Cecil Dick and other Native American artists while he worked as a metal working instructor at the Chilloco Indian School in Oklahoma during WWII. We both grew up watching our father make heavy twisted, fabricated and forged bracelets. We eventually started to make our own. While our styles have diverged both from Dad and each other, there is still a little bit of Dad (and Cecil) in our work and us…Rob

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Hi Rob:

All I can say is good for you for honoring the memory of your father.

Michael

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One of the stories Dad told of his days on the Reservation at Chilloco was making stamps with Cecil Dick. Dad bought a couple of dollars worth of tool steel punches (and I think some came from Beach Aircraft). With this metal Cecil showed Dad how to heat treat the steel and file in the patterns that he would use for the rest of his life. Rob has some of those stamps, as do I. Dad split up the punches with Cecil who was very surprised at the gift. Dad showed me how to make some of my own and I have. I often use those old stamps in my work.

There is a definite Native American look to some of my jewelry. As Rob explained that was how we were taught. But there’s also a very Oriental/Asian look, an Egyptian look, and lately a Celtic direction in my work. As artists our work is the sum of our influences.

Regarding the Cultural Appropriation discussion: I make a very conscious effort not to look at anyone’s jewelry. But look at some of the petroglyphs found at Newgrange and compare them to some of the Native and Meso-American Spiral stone carvings and pottery motifs and see the similarities. I doubt you could find any appropriation at work there but some of those patterns have similarities that can’t be denied.

Museum art is a different story. Historical pieces like the Tara Brooch and how they were made is a fascinating and valuable study. Using those techniques if they apply to the work you are doing is just good sense.

Rant over.

Don Meixner

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Hi Don:

I know from the way you and Rob talk about your father that you are both aware of the incredible gift you share not only to be second generation jewelers, but to have your brother on the same path as you. Rob mentioned that your father required you two to buy your own tools and build your own studios, so he realized that the only way to learn to do what we do was through our own individual efforts.

As I think about cultural appropriation, to which I haven’t given any thought in a long time, it is to me only objectionable when one lies about the origin of something one has made. I recall years ago when I was pretty new at all this, I met a former farrier, a white man, who had taken up silversmithing when he retired from shoeing horses. He had known Ben Nighthorse and learned a lot from him, and his style was heavily influenced by Ben’s style; however, it was not Ben’s work and he did not try to pass it off as such. I recall that his work had evolved nicely from being purely a stylistic imitation of something to being truly his own. His work when I met him was pretty much focused on inlaid bolo ties in the likeness of the late comedian Red Skelton. I don’t recall why he made that choice, but whatever the reason, that’s what he hit on. He invited me to visit his studio one evening, and when I did, I got to see a number of those bolos. They were quite good representations in stone and shell of the comedian as a number of the characters he famously played such as Freddie the Freeloader and Clem Kaddidlehopper. I recall he had presented Mr. Skelton with one of his pieces, though nothing had come of it.

The reason I’m telling Jim’s story–I just remembered his name–in such detail is that I consider him to have made fitting use of what he had been given from a culture not his own. The influence on him of Indian artistry was clearly visible, yet he did not lie about it and was true to his own culture in how he
put it to use. Our world even then had become so small that outside influences were inevitable and unavoidable. In my own case, my ancestry is Creek and Oklahoma Cherokee, and as I have said more than once, my greatest influences have been largely Navajo. There is of course a sort of all-encompassing American Indian culture, but in truth, Navajo culture is as different from my own ancestral culture as Greek is from Norwegian. I happily admit my artistic influences to anyone who is interested, and probably to many who are not. I would not be able to make much of anything at all in silver if I tried to limit myself to designs my ancestors produced. I have only seen photos of a couple of silver gorgets from the period of Spanish contact in the seventeenth century. While we do have a rich tradition of basketry designs, such designs have limited application to silver jewelry, and I have used them when appropriate.

Personally, I find it unfortunate that most modern Cherokee artifacts, which come primarily from the Eastern Band of Cherokee on the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina, consist of such trinkets as “tomahawks” with decorative leather blades for the tourist trade. There are still beautiful baskets being produced there, but in large part modern Cherokee basketry is about such stuff as basket weaving kits for beginners. We all must do what we have to do to get by given the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Without a certain degree of cross-cultural influence, I, for one, would not be able to make jewelry of any consequence or background whatsoever.

Chinese knockoffs and the like are criminal in their fraudulent presentation and are another matter entirely. I apologize for my verbosity, but this is a huge subject with all sorts of variations. Finally it is all simply about honesty. If one is honest about one’s work, then to me nothing is off-limits.

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Thanks, Michael! I’ll keep your reply about authenticity in mind. Also, regarding muddied, complex ancestry: a cousin recently related to me that my grandmother said she came from the “Chichimeca peoples.” Ironically, even that name refers to multiple tribes. Anyway, for our family that’s a big deal because we never had an inkling of where we came from. So, I’m still not sure what designs/motifs I want to use. I wanna honor my culture, y’know? I’ll figure it out.

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Good for you, gerrysotherkid. I’m sure you will figure it out.

Michael

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Hi - I’m an English silversmith but back in 1979 I was offered a job in Albuquerque (New Mexico), where I was staying with relatives. The job was to help make Indian jewellery and I turned it down because I just felt it would be wrong to do that. But I did buy some books about the various styles - Navajo, Hopi etc and have used some of those concepts in my own work back in Europe, over the years. But I always acknowledge the source when I do so - e.g. “Navajo-style bracelet…”. I still have small turquoise cabochons I bought back then but I don’t have your knowledge of its quality - I just use its name when I know it - e.g. China Mountain - if I don’t know - I just say ‘turquoise’.

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I had posted on a previous thread that I have three “new pawn” Navajo squash blossom necklaces. two of them have reddish brown stones set in them and the third has what looks like turquoise alternating with the same reddish stones. From the style and from the time I acquired them I know that they are new pawn. The problem comes to testing the reddish stones non destructively and also gauging the quality of the turquoise non destructively… I do know that coral was prized by Native American jewelers but I suspect that what I have could be a plastic simulant. The turquoise could bre stablized turquoise… if so, then the only value that these would have would be antique value. A local appraiser told me that they knew nothing about antique value and would value jewerlry only on metal and stone content, which seems to be somewhat strange for a professional appraisal. I have live in New Mexico and have been there many time since. The same style of jewelry is selling at anywhere between 2K to 6K per necklace… I got three of them, plus a ring and a braceet for a total of 1K 20 years ago or longer…the seller had them out in a yard sale and I don’t think that they realized the value…I do also know that there are Chinese made knock offs. These knock offs are of recent vintage. Where I live currently, there are many Native American jewelers but these people of Sioux heritage. They have adopted and modernized the style of inlayed Zuni Pueblo jewelers. They did not start making Native jewelry until the 1990’s and 2000’s…
Since I have no local resources, I will need to bring my jewelry back to Albuquerque and Santa Fe to get a stone ID and appraisal.
Assuming that the stones are either simulants or of low quality, does anyone in this thread know what the antique value of “new pawn” squash blossom necklaces are?.. I am looking for a wide range to bracket where these pieces could stand.

I think you told this story before about some jerky people who wrecked a Morenci turquoise stone by using a “hot wire” test to burn into the stone so see if it was stabilized, simulant or whatever… they had burned the polish layer but were unable to penetrate the stone, which was a polished boulder Morenci gem grade stone…
Using a coarse grain file, like a bastard file, or any file for that matter, can stratch any turquoise, gem quality or not as the Mohs hardness of a steel file is 6.5 or so…as hard or harder than gem turquoise…Those people did not deserve a refund as they had done intentional damage to a piece of jewelry… wreck it intentionally, you own it…It makes absolutely no sense that they still wanted the bracelet whose stone they wrecked, especially if they thought that the stone was a fake… wonder what was going on in the heads of people like this… they should have been thrown out and banned from reentering the store.

I have lived in New Mexico back in the late 1970’s and again in the mid 1980’s… Have been back and forth often. We had both Navajo and Taos Pueblo friends with whom we invited to stay with on trips out of Albuquerque…One of my college Navajo friends was the administrative director of an IHS clinic at Shiprock. Ancestry is indeed muddled. The Anasazi who are the preseumptive ancestors of the Pueblo people traded with Mexico… parrot feathers, sea shell beads were excavated at Chaco Canyon, along with turquoise beads from Los Cerillos, whose mines predate the Spanish by several centuries. The Navajos and related Apaches were late comers… filtering into the southwest between 200 and 1300AD…at the height of the Anasazi civilization. The Spanish “conquered” Nuevo Mexico under Don Onate in 1598, the conquest of the Aztecs was in 1521… The Pueblo revolt of 1680 temporarily kicked the Spanish out… the reconquista under Don Diego de Varga in 1692 re-establish Spanish rule… Anglos did not start invading New Mexico until the early to mid 1800’s. The Mexican American war started in 1847… resulting in the US taking over all of formerly Spanish, then Mexican territory in North America… As a consequence, the people of New Mexico are of a diverse lineage and intermingled. The Hispanic population was isolated from Mexico by centuries. Genetically they are 60-70% Spanish with 30-40% Native American, mostly Pueblo and 1% black. I have a hispanic friend in Albuquerque whose family still lives in a village in northern New Mexico that has been there for 4 centuries. The Mexico Mexican population is far more diverse.
Silver smithing by the Navajos and Zuni Pueblo occurred about the same time in the mid to later 1800’s… They applied techniques learned from iron working from the Spanish… traditional squash blossom necklaces and sand cast bracelets date back to the 1880’s, with Mexican silver coin jewerlry dating back a little earlier. the “Old Pawn” style jewelry is from the turn of the century to the 1920’s… the “new Pawn” style if I am correct dates back to the 1960’s. Both have antique value with old pawn being much more expensive than new pawn or contemporary jewelry…