Understanding American Indian Jewellery

15 Aug 2011

By Sharen Custer, 62days expert

Perhaps the most popular Native American art among serious collectors is Indian jewellery. All tribes produced some personal ornaments, but the famous silver and turquoise ornaments created relatively recently by Navajo, Zuni and Hopi Indians of the Southwest are the ones most frequently collected.

The popularity of Southwest American Indian jewellery owes much to one man, and a rather unlikely one. He was Frederick H Harvey, more generally known as the principal purveyor of food for Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company trains in the second half of the 19th century. A poor immigrant from England, around 1870 Harvey became responsible for feeding the passengers travelling on the newly built transcontinental line – at first not in dining cars but at the station restaurants along the line. Like many restaurateurs ever since, he installed souvenir counters where he displayed local Indian jewellery along with blankets, baskets and other native products. He very much encouraged the Indians along the routes to pursue the crafts and even allowed some to ride on the trains to sell their wares in transit.

The Indian silverwork that was encouraged by Harvey evolved from Spanish techniques but exhibited a style that was distinctive to each tribe. The Navajo favoured silver over stones and their jewellery tended to be massive and simple in design. Their cast silver can be distinguished by its thickness and weight as well as by its roughened finish; visible when a piece is viewed through a magnifying glass.

The Pueblo Zuni tribe emphasized semi-precious stones and produced unusual settings. The Hopi at first worked with borrowed Navajo and Zuni techniques, but beginning in the 1930s they developed their own peculiar style – overlays in which polished silver ornaments are set upon oxidised silver backgrounds to create three dimensional effects. The oldest known Indian jewellery of this type dates only from the second half of the 19th century. Known as old pawn, after the Indian’s practice of pawning personal ornaments with white traders, it is extremely rare to find nowadays.

Quality of workmanship and design, together with age and the intrinsic value of the materials used, are the chief factors in determining its market value. The best pieces are those that the Indians made for their personal adornment and for trade within the tribal community: seams are usually soldered very carefully, bezels are tailored to the stones rather than the other way round; the silver is heavier on older pieces, having been hammered from silver coins, and polishing is lustrous and even. In general, early personal and in-tribal trade jewels are of the highest possible quality.

Although many types of stones were used, turquoise has been the most desirable and widespread. The finest grade of turquoise is hard, with a clear even blue colour. It should not chip when it is probed with a fingernail. In recent times, lower grade turquoise, soft and porous, have been stabilised by using a sealer to strengthen them and enhance their colour. When such stones are viewed with a magnifying glass, they display a very smooth even surface, with all cracks and veins filled. They are generally more expensive than non-stabilised stones of the same quality; however, they are certainly less desirable than the best non-stabilised turquoise.

If you’re seeking to buy or sell antiques such as these or value this type of jewellery then you may well need to explore the market carefully to ensure you find the right option for your needs. Given how rare it is to find the best examples, seek out the opinion of an expert where you can.

Happy Hunting!