Native American Jewelry Techniques
Heishi (from the Santo Domingo word meaning “shell”) traditionally referred to necklace shell beads. Today, however, it describes tiny, handmade beads of any material. The Santo Domingo Pueblo carvers are the most proficient heishi producers. To make the minuscule beads, the material (shell, stone, or coral) is sliced into strips, and then cut into small squares, after which holes are drilled through the center. Strung together, the rough squares are shaped and smoothed by holding the string against a turning stone wheel. In the process, 60 – 70% of the original material is lost.
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.
One of Navajo silversmiths’ greatest innovations was their use of stamp work to decorate silver. Navajo silversmiths have mastered the stamping technique to a point of almost mathematical perfection, creating beautifully intricate designs in silver. Stamps were historically handmade from iron or steel and often passed down from generation to generation. Even modern artists may still inherit stamps for silverwork. Debbie Silversmith, one of our currently featured artists, still uses the stamps made by her grandfather Kenneth Begay – one of the most famous Navajo silversmiths of all time.
To create stamped silverwork, a sheet of silver is cut into the desired shape and placed on a steel bench block. The artist then lines up the stamp and makes the impression with a single strike of a hammer. Most stamps are small and it can take many hammer strikes to complete a finished design. Once the stamp work is completed the piece may be oxidized with the protruding silver polished. This creates a more dramatic contrast within the stamped designs. The piece is then heated up and carefully molded into its final shape as a beautiful piece of stamped silver 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.
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.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.