Shop For Tufa Cast Jewelry

Native tribes in the Southwest have been creating ornamental jewelry for many hundreds of years. Before the Spanish ever arrived, these tribal artists had mastered the art of heishi bead rolling and lapidary. However, it was not until the 1800s that they learned to work metal from Mexican smiths. The Navajos were the first tribe to cast silver jewelry in the late 1870s and the technique spread to the Zuni and Hopi tribes by 1890.

Tufa stone is a compressed volcanic ash material that is found on the Navajo reservation. It is easier to carve than sandstone and its porous surface leaves a unique texture once the metal has cooled. Tufa casting is a labor-intensive process involving many steps.

First, a tufa stone of the desired size is cut in half. The two halves are rubbed together to create a perfectly flush surface. A cone shaped hole, called a sprue hole, is carved at the top to allow the silver to be poured in. Additional holes carved along the sides allow air to escape. Next, the artist’s design is carved into the flat surface on the inside of the mold. The negative space carved away will be filled with molten silver or gold. The tufa stone is then carbonized with a torch and the two halves are bound together with clamps. The desired metal, silver or gold, is melted and poured into the tufa mold. Modern artists use gas torches or furnaces to melt their metal, but these tools were not always available. Early Navajo silversmiths would fill a pottery container with coins and settle it into the embers of a fire until the metal was in a liquid state.

Once cooled, the hardened piece is taken out of the mold and the extra metal in the sprue hole is removed. The artist will 
carefully sand and clean the design, making sure to leave the porous texture from the tufa stone. The last step is to shape the flat metal into its final form, such as the curved semi-circle of a cuff bracelet.   

 

 

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2 comments

Nan B

Thanks so much for this descriptive article. I began making jewelry few years ago and was lucky to find 2 books on Southwestern Indian Jewelry making techniques this process was not in either volume. I’ve always been drawn to Native American jewelry and am very glad to have found this site,

Manies

What a relief to find smoeone who actually knows what they’re talking about.. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand your side of the story. I cant believe youre not more well known because you definitely have the gift.

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