Monday, February 7, 2011

Every picture tells a story, some more than one.

We've handled a lot of squash blossom necklaces over the years, ranging in quality from the ridiculous (we try to keep those to a minimum) to the sublime. Tens of thousands of them were made, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has become the one thing that springs to mind when people think of Indian jewelry. The basic configuration has remained unchanged for over a century--silver beads and 3 or 4 petal blossoms, with a naja at the bottom. Some have no turquoise at all, some have turquoise set in the naja, and some have turquoise all over. The differences lie in the details, and it is often impossible to see what makes one better than another until you actually hold and compare the two.

We aren't good enough at this internet thing for you to be able to hold a piece through the computer, but using a lot of close-up photos is a pretty good substitute. And with this particular squash blossom necklace, every picture has something very interesting to say.

Here is N 1705, a Navajo squash blossom necklace from circa 1905-1915. At first glance, the most unusual thing about it is the crosspiece with three set turquoise above the naja. An unusual feature, to be sure, but there is a lot more to learn from this piece.
If you look closely at the stones on the ends of the naja's arms, you can see that the bezel looks a bit wrinkled. In other pieces of this age, the bezel would have notches cut out so that the thin silver could be folded over the stone. This smith cut in some notches, but made them very small, so from a distance the bezel appears to be one of the smooth bezels that Navajo smiths learned to make ten years later. The other four stones have bezels that look even smoother and better done, but on close inspection each bezel has a little nick or imperfection that allowed the smith to smooth out the silver--still, they are more skillfully done than the two at the terminals, which leaves open the possibility that the crosspiece and the stone drop in the middle were added on to the naja a few years after it was originally made. We can't say for sure, but it was not at all uncommon for Navajo jewelry to be modified to fit the changing tastes of the owner, who was probably a relative of the smith.

From the reverse, you can see some really interesting things about the naja. First, the tri-wires
are clearly hand-drawn (note the unevenness of the flat surfaces). Second, the thin wire set in the middle is not actual ropework, as would be expected in a piece from the 1920s or later. Instead, it is a single wire that is smooth on the back, which means that the "twisting" pattern on the front was done by scoring with a chisel or file. Not easy to do, especially with such a thin wire. And finally, the label on the back is some sort of collection number, most likely from a museum. It could have been left to a museum in 1965 (hence the "65" at the beginning) and then deaccessioned later on. Since many museums started life as large private collections, and were run as such up until very recent times, it is not surprising or uncommon to find pieces that show signs of being part of one at one time or another. Though this necklace is of museum quality, a local historical society or non-Indian museum would have no use for a piece like this and would deaccession it to raise funds for more appropriate acquisitions.

Here is a closer look at the faux ropework on the front of the naja. Notice how when it is viewed up-close, the irregular spacing of the notches becomes clear.

The other interesting part of the necklace is the beads and blossoms. Towards the bottom, here is how they appear:

The beads have raised seams in the middle which have been filed flat. The round part of the blossoms shows less of a raised seam, which means thay could have been done by a different smith. Oddly, the flat part of the blossoms is untouched on one edge, but notched on the other.

When you go higher up the string of beads, you see a change (which I marked with an arrow).

The higher beads (on the left) are slightly smaller and rounder. At some point, probably pretty early in its life, this necklace either broke and was restrung with some smaller beads, or was lengthened (quite a bit) with the smaller beads. The small beads are quite old and well-done, and it is a time-honored tradition among the Navajo to maintain their necklaces by restringing them when necessary, so it only adds another chapter to the interesting history of the piece. Also, two of the blossoms are missing a petal, with only two instead of the original three. We don't know exactly what happened along the road, but clearly this is a piece that has had an eventful life.
The necklace has a straight length of 28", and the naja is 2 9/16" wide. The special internet price on it is SOLD. If you have any questions about it, please give us a call.