History of Navajo Silversmithing

About the Navajo Tribe

Traditionally, the Navajo were semi-nomadic from the 16th through the 20th centuries.  The term “Navajo” is used by outsiders, but the people call themselves by their traditional name, which is “Diné” (pronounced as “Da Nay”).   Their extended kinship groups had seasonal dwelling areas to accommodate livestock, agriculture and gathering practices. As part of their traditional economy, Navajo groups may have formed trading or raiding parties, traveling relatively long distances.  Historically, the structure of the Navajo society is largely a matrilineal system, in which women owned livestock and land.  Once married, a Navajo man would move to live with his bride in her dwelling and among her mother’s people and clan. Daughters (or, if necessary, other female relatives) were traditionally the ones who received the generational property inheritance.  The children are “born to” and belong to the mother’s clan, and are “born for” the father’s clan.  The mother’s eldest brother has a strong role in her children’s lives.  As adults, males represent their mother’s clan in tribal politics. The clan system is exogamous: people must date and marry partners outside their own clans, which for this purpose include the clans of their four grandparents.

The Navajo of the Southwestern United States are the largest federally recognized tribe of the United States of America with about 300,000 enrolled tribal members.   The Navajo Nation constitutes an independent governmental body, which manages the Navajo Indian reservation in the Four Corners area of the United States.  The Navajo language is spoken throughout the region with most Navajo speaking English as well.   As of 2011, the states with the largest Navajo populations are Arizona (140,263), and New Mexico (108,306). Over three-quarters of the Navajo population reside in these two states.  The Navajo Reservation covers over 27,000 square miles of unparalleled beauty.  Navajoland, is larger than 10 of the 50 states in America.  Their capitol is in the city of Window Rock, Arizona, about 25 miles Northwest of Gallup, New Mexico.

The Navajo, (or Diné in the Navajo Language), began working silver in the 19th century.

Atsidi Sani, or “Old Smith,” (ca. 1828-1918) is credited as being the first Navajo silversmith.   He learned to work silver from a Mexican smith as early as 1853.   Navajo silversmiths make buckles, bridles, buttons, rings, hollow beads, earrings, crescent-shaped pendants (called “najas”), bracelets, crosses, and disks, known as “conchos” among other items.  Conchos are typically used to decorate belts and hat bands made most commonly from silver .   Early Navajo smiths engraved, stamped, and filed designs into plain silver, from melted coins, flatware, and ingots obtained from European-American traders.

Later, sheet silver and silver wire acquired from American settlers were also made into jewelry.   The punches and stamps used by Mexican leather workers became the first tools used to create these decorations.   Still later, railroad spikes, broken files, and iron scraps became handmade stamps in the hands of these skilled artisans.   As commercially-made stamps became available however, through contact with the larger American economy, they are now utilized.  

Several other traditional hand tools were employed, being relatively simple to construct.   The early bellows consisted of a skin bag about a foot long, held open with wooden hoops.   It was provided with a valve and a nozzle.   A forge, crucibles, an anvil, and tongs are used during the melting process.   Molds, the matrix and die, cold chisels, scissors, pliers, files, awls, and emery paper also come into play.   The early soldering setup consisted of a blowpipe and a torch made of oil-soaked rags used with borax, and was manipulated by the smith.  

The silversmith used a grinding stone, sandstone dust, and ashes for polishing the jewelry, and a salt called almogen is used for whitening.  Navajo jewelers began sand casting silver around 1875.   Silver was melted and then poured into a mold, which would be carved from a soft stone.   When cooled and set, the piece normally required additional work of filing and smoothing.   Cast jewelry was also occasionally engraved.   Sterling silver jewelry was soldered, and surrounded by scrolls, beads, and leaf patterns.  

Turquoise is closely associated with Navajo jewelry, but it was not until 1880 that the first turquoise was known to be set in silver.   Turquoise became much more readily available in ensuing decades.   Coral and other semi-precious stones came into common use around 1900.   Today, the Navajo enjoy stones and materials from around the  world.  They work with spiney oyster, tigereye from Africa, Charoite from Russia, coral from the Mediterranean, stones from South America, Asia, and other parts of the world.  They get these items by trading with jewelry supply houses around the Reservations. 

One of the most important forms of Navajo and Southwestern Native American jewelry, is the Squash Blossom Necklace. Most are made of a string of plain round  hollow silver beads, interspersed with more stylized “squash blossoms”, and feature a pendant, or “naja”, hung from the center of the strand.   The squash blossom beads are copied from the buttons which held together the pants worn by the Spanish, and later, Mexican caballeros.   These buttons represent – and are modeled after – pomegranates.   Their identification as “squash blossoms”, which they closely resemble, is an understandable, and often repeated, error.   The naja, which resembles an upside-down horse shoe, completes the design.   The naja origin can be found a continent and several hundred years away, as a traditional part of Spanish horse halters. (Sourced from Wikipedia)