Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Things to look for in old American Indian silver jewelry

Here is a short list of technical and stylistic things to be aware of when looking at old (or not so old) American Indian silver jewelry.

1. Materials
There were a limited number of stones (almost entirely turquoise, with some jet and shell) available to craftsmen of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and the metals used were silver (overwhelmingly), copper (rarely), and brass (very rarely). As additional turquoise mines were opened in the 1930s and more coral was imported, the variety of materials increased. Gold was only used very rarely until recent times, and exotic gems and minerals are a very recent innovation.

2. Techniques
The earliest pieces were made by simply heating and hammering silver wires or coins; more sophisticated and later pieces used techniques like annealing, casting and finally inlay. Early pieces will usually show annealing marks and stress cracks on the unfinished back side or inside. Inlay pieces should be cleanly and skillfully done, because the early inlay artists were not working in mass quantities as in later times. Overlay was developed at Hopi in 1946, and the vast majority of Hopi overlay pieces postdate 1960.

3. Bezels
Bezels are the silver strips used to affix stones to silverwork, and have changed greatly over the years. Early bezels were folded over the stones, and notched to prevent wrinkling. Some “sawtooth” bezels were made with many small notches, especially in the 1900-1920 time period. As a general rule, the thinner and more even bezels indicate a later date of manufacture.

4. Designs
Designs were limited by the tools available. The earliest designs were done with files and chisels, with very simple stamped elements. Later stamped designs were more elaborate and intricate, and covered more of the silver surface than in earlier pieces. “Indian” designs like the teepee and dog were characteristic of tourist trade pieces from the 1930s and 1940s.

5. Wear patterns
With very rare exceptions, old silver jewelry will show characteristic wear patterns from contact with skin, cloth or other jewelry. Old pieces made from ingot silver will wear smooth from being handled, and later pieces made from sheet silver will not show such obvious wear and will retain sharper edges. (Sometimes, a piece collected early on that was never worn will not show these patterns—wear patterns should not be a rule unto themselves, but should be taken into account with all other factors.) The coloration of the turquoise is also a kind of wear, because over time, turquoise will often absorb the oils off the wearer’s skin and darken in color.

6. Provenance
Provenance is helpful in determining a date of manufacture, but only if the provenance is consistent with all the other factors. Provenance establishes the history of an object, and is strongest if there is matching documentary evidence (such as photographs or collection records).
7. Hallmarks
If it is hallmarked and/or has a “sterling” stamp, it is probably post-1950. There are rare exceptions, but that is a good rule of thumb.

8. Automatic Dating Clues
Certain styles were popular at certain times, mainly in the 1970s during the Indian jewelry craze. Bear claws, sea foam turquoise, attached old coins, applied silver leaves, massive turquoise settings, shadowbox settings and dime beads were all integrated into Indian silverwork during this time, but not before. Lapis and yellow pin shell appeared in Zuni inlay in the 1970s, but generally not before. There are exceptions to some of these rules, but they are unusual and notable.

9. Revivals and Fakes
A revival piece is a piece made in an earlier style, while a fake is a piece made to deceive a buyer. Revivals are acceptable and real, fakes are not. Most fakes are made to look crude and early, but true early Indian silver was made by careful craftsmen who had simple tools but lots of time; while early pieces may look simple, they are not crude or sloppy. Fakes are also often too thick, because people think early pieces are ingot silver and ingot pieces have to be thick. In reality, silver was a precious commodity and early smiths would use only as much as was necessary for the job.

10. Other factors
Family history is provenance, but stories can change over time. Since most pieces of Indian jewelry were made after 1970, that is when most “my grandmother bought this” stories really begin. A piece that is considered “old” may have been bought 35 years ago, which could mean it was new at the time and made in 1974.

To see examples of old pieces, please visit our shop in Scottsdale or our website at