We recently received three outstanding pieces of Indian jewelry and one made by a legendary white guy who has earned the respect of Native artists.
The oldest piece in the collection is from the 1920-30s and was made for the Fred Harvey Company to sell at their railroad hotel and Grand Canyon stores. This style of jewelry is easy to spot. It was almost always made of flat silver, cut to shape, and stamped with the same basic designs. Different manufacturers made the jewelry, and, during the war when silver was rationed, businesses set up job shops to supply the business.
It was legal to sell silver to individual silversmiths but not costume jewelry manufacturers. So businesses set up “retail” counters in large buildings with silversmithing benches. A silversmith would walk in, buy the supplies “on paper,” then take the material back to their bench with an order for a certain number of rings, bracelets, or whatever the business needed. They would finish the work, come back to the counter, and sell the items “on paper.” The cost of the items they used was subtracted from the total value of what they had made, including their take-home pay.
Most of the bracelets were narrow, usually around a half-inch, and some were set with turquoise, usually a single piece, and the turquoise was not always high-grade. The stones were typically blue.
This bracelet is unique in many ways. The stone is gorgeous! I don’t know what mine it’s from, but it is a stunning natural piece of turquoise with deep blues and greens. The stone is over an inch wide, which you seldom see in Harvey jewelry.
A piece of stamped silver in the shape of an arrow lies across the stone. On occasion, I have seen silversmiths do something like this, and it is usually because there is a crack in the turquoise that they are trying to hide. I used a sharp jeweler’s tool to lift the silver strip carefully, and there was no crack. This artist attached the silver arrow as part of his design.
This piece of Fred Harvey jewelry is among the most unique we have had the opportunity to show in the gallery.
The second piece of jewelry is a beautiful and artistically made sand cast bracelet set with a single turquoise stone. This is an older piece, probably from 1930-40. Sand casting is a unique process that requires the silversmith to create a pattern by carving the design in a flat piece of tufa stone, a fine, soft type of limestone.
Another flat piece of tufa is tied to the carved piece, and molten silver is poured through an opening in-between the two pieces. The silver fills the carved area, and a pattern is formed. In this case, the pattern was that of a bracelet that was flattened out.
The flat pattern is then pressed down into moist sand in a box slightly larger than the pattern. When the pattern is removed, there is an indentation of the bracelet in the sand. A flat piece of tufa is tied on top of the box, and it is carefully tipped to keep the sand in place. Molten silver is again poured through an opening, forming the bracelet.
Usually, the silversmith would use a file and smooth the rough finish left by the tufa and any small areas where the silver had escaped the mold. Then the silver would be bent into the shape of a bracelet, often using a car axel and a leather mallet. In this case, the silversmith added an extra step and, using a silver rolling machine which is usually used to create sheet silver out of ingots; he rolled the pattern leaving the top of the bracelet flat. Once again, an artist was creatively thinking out of the box.
He then cut a sheet of silver that he would use for the bezel, creating adjoining half circles that he stamped with a circle. To top it off, he used a twisted wire around the outside to accent the bezel.
The turquoise looks as though silver could have been used to fill indentations on the stone’s surface.
It is amazing what a silversmith could create 80 years ago with the most basic tools!
In 1909, Frank Patania Sr. arrived from Italy with his mother, and they settled in New York City. He was ten years old. When he was six, Patania had been an apprentice with a goldsmith in Italy. When he came to America, he could not get a job and went to school until he found a career as a machinist. At 19, he got a job as a jewelry designer for one of America’s largest jewelry manufacturers.
In 1924, Patania developed tuberculosis. The firm sent him to Santa Fe to recover, and he was entranced with the area. In 1927, he started his shop in the New Mexico capital, The Thunderbird Shop. He worked with many Native silversmiths and developed a solid base of collectors, including Mabel Dodge and Georgia O’Keefe.
In the 1950s, Patania opened a second shop in Tucson as business was slow in Santa Fe in the winter months. His "Thunderbird Style” had grown in popularity, his brother Frank had joined the firm, and Frank’s son, Frank Patania, Jr. (born in 1932), was beginning to work with his father. Frank Sr. died in 1964.Frank Jr. began helping his father in his shop when he was only seven years old, about the same age his father served as an apprentice in Italy. Frank did attend school, graduated from the University of Arizona, and served in the United States Military. He returned to Tucson in 1956 and began his career as a gold and silversmith.
He has received many honors. Two of his pieces are in the permanent collection of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute. His style diverted from his father’s, and he began to create liturgical pieces. He described his style as more architectural. The pendant that we have for sale today is made with two pieces of silver, shaped into round disks, and soldered together with an overlaid image of a church on the front.
Simple and elegant, made entirely by hand by a master craftsman.
His son, Sam, is now carrying on the family tradition.
Northern Cheyenne artist Ben Nighthorse started working with metal when he was in Japan representing the United States in Judo at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He had the highest finish, 4th place, by a non-Asian in the sport and likely would have done better had it not been for an injury.
While in Japan, he studied with a sword maker and learned to mix metals. After returning to the United States, living in Sacramento working in law enforcement and training horses. He also had a small silversmithing shop in Old Town Sacramento where he worked with and taught silversmithing to Native American students. One of the people he worked with who became a star in the Indian Jewelry business was Victor Gabriel, who recently passed away.
Many top artists credit Nighthorse for helping to start their careers.
In the late 1970s, he and his wife Linda moved to Ignacio, Colorado to run the Sky Ute Downs for the Southern Ute Tribe. He later ran for congress and served as a member of the House of Representatives for six years before serving two terms as a United States Senator.
During that time, he never quit making jewelry. When he began his career, he worked with the traditional tools and materials, but living in Washington, D.C. made that a little difficult. “It didn’t make your neighbors real happy to have someone pounding on an anvil in the next-door apartment,” he shared one time while in Durango between sessions.
He began to carry a piece of jeweler’s wax around with him and, while listening to the goings-on in Congress, he would carve masters that could be cast into bracelets, rings, pendants, buckles, and other pieces of jewelry. The jewelry was then made using the lost wax method of casting, the same process used by bronze artists.
Ben is still very active and creates beautiful gold and silver jewelry, some set with semi-precious stones, some with diamonds or rubies, and many that are simply silver or gold.
One of the pieces of jewelry we received to sell is a beautifully simple eagle pendant that resembles a shield. It has a wonderful, substantial feel and a distinctive look. Like all the four pieces above, the simplicity of the design and the quality of the workmanship speak for themselves.