It was not until relatively recent times that silverwork became important to the Hopi economy. The crafting of silver developed slowly in the 20th century, as the market for this work remained limited until the late 1940s, when Hopi designs and symbols began to be successfully translated into modern jewelry. Hopi overlay designs have since been incorporated onto rings, bracelets, concha belts, earrings, and other jewelry, and they are occasionally complemented by turquoise and other semi-precious stones.
Overlay describes a piece of silver with a design cut out of it – a negative design – laid over a second piece of silver or gold and soldered together. First, the artist carefully cuts a design out of silver, and keeps the part that is leftover. The designs must be carefully sawed out, making this the most painstaking and intricate step in the whole process. This piece of silver is then soldered onto a sheet of plain silver and the inside of the design (the cutout area) is oxidized to show up black beneath the polished silver layer.
While Hopis are considered to be masters of the overlay technique, many other tribes utilize overlay in their work. Navajo overlay can be just as technically impressive, yet the designs and symbols will differ greatly. One way to differentiate Hopi and Navajo overlay, other than subject matter, is the etching of the base layer of silver. Hopis will usually have a finely etched texture on the base layer while Navajos will leave the silver beneath smooth.