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Native Indian jewelry, especially of the Navajo and Zuni variety,is generating increasing interest for its beautiful and stunning design and workmanship. It is based on a tradition that is not that long, going back to about the middle of the 19th century. The emphasis here is on the silverwork that is employed in the making of the jewelry. There is a fascinating history which is worth looking into. It is an American legacy of the native Indians, from the time of the Spanish Conquest. So in that sense it is a tradition that goes back to the founding times of America.
Native American Indian jewelry was, and is, generally classified into two main types – beadwork and metalwork. Beadwork has a longer history stretching back to pre-Colombian times. It concentrated on the use of natural materials, and semi-precious gemstones, such as shells and turquoise, animal bones and ivory.
In this article, I am concentrating on metalwork jewelry making. Because the skills and techniques of fashioning metal were not advanced until after the arrival of the Europeans on the American continent, the metalwork jewelry was, prior to that period, of relatively simple order. Iron and copper were used, so was brass and later silver. The technique was by manual hammering and etching. The fashioning of silver by silversmiths came after silversmithing was introduced by the Spaniards.
The influence was on the south-west of the American continent. In fact, it was the Mexicans first who learned the skill of silversmithing from the Spanish invaders. After the native Indians learned it from the Mexicans, their skill gradually grew and has developed into the intricate use of silver with gemstones like turquoise, with distinctive designs that are stunningly eye-catching.
The Navajo are credited with being the tribe that helped spread the craft of silversmithing. Being of a nomadic nature, the Navajo came frequently into contact with the Spanish in the south-west from about the late 16th century. There were clashes and sometimes friendly association. The Spanish personal ornaments and adornments fascinated the Indians. And they began to copy or assimilate the Spanish style and began to wear ornaments made from so-called German silver. But silversmithing, using real silver, was not yet within their grasp.
Though the history is not completely certain, it is generally thought that the first Navajo silversmith was Atsidi Sani (also known as “Old Smith”), and the making of silver jewelry started in th 1860s. Atsidi Sani was among some 8000 of the Navajo tribe who were captured and imprisoned at Fort Sumner in New Mexico in 1864 to 1868. It seems that by the end of the captivity, Atsidi Sani learned the art of silversmithing. The art was transmitted to his sons, and spread to the Zuni in around 1872. Atsidi Chon (known also, perhaps descriptively, as “Ugly Smith”) taught his Zuni friend Lanyade the skill of making silver. The Navajo style was passed on to the Hopi, when they in turn learned making silver jewelry from the Zuni.
In the early days, the source of silver was Mexican and U.S. coins. The U.S. coins, being readily available and of good quality, were often used. In 1890 a law was passed prohibiting the melting of U.S. coins, but that was more often honored in the breach than observance.
The emblematic piece of Navajo or Navajo-style jewelry is the squash blossom necklace. This was actually adopting the Spanish crescent-shaped “naja” as the centerpiece of the necklace. The crescent was itself a legacy of Moorish influence upon the Spanish. Muslim Spain had a history of almost 800 years from 711-1492, with a flourishing culture.