Long before the Europeans set foot on American soil, Native Americans were accomplished jewelers. Unlike the other artistic disciplines, jewelry styles did not vary all that significantly among the tribes. This was in large part due to the fact that the varied and sundry tribes were, generally speaking, limited to the same base materials and tools.
Of the more popular materials chosen by the native craftsmen for jewelry construction were as follows: turquoise, amber, copper, and–perhaps most prominent of them all–silver in its purest of forms as sterling (though sterling silver became popular much later in Native American history).
Pure or sterling silver was not utilized extensively by the natives until it was introduced by the Spanish in the early 1800s alongside with more modern metalworking techniques. What the natives were used to prior to this period was what is known as “German silver,” a shiny metal mixture composed primarily of copper, zinc, and nickel–an inferior product to the purer sterling silver.
Of the tribes to begin utilizing sterling silver and modern smithing techniques, the Navajo were the first. According the best of current research, the first Navajo silversmith was Atsidi Sani, who apparently learned blacksmithing from the Spanish in the 1850s and subsequently progressed into silversmithing particularly in the 1860s.
Early silver jewelry craftsmen obtained their silver, more often than not, from both U.S. and Mexican minted coins, which contained a fine silver, the Mexican silver being the easier to work with and preferred by the Navajo. Preferable to the coins though, was sterling silver which could be obtained by melting down objects made from the metal, such as candlesticks, silverware, etc., that were becoming more readily available at this time.
The early focus of sterling silver jewelry making was upon belts, bolos, and other traditional native costume and ceremonial pieces. From these traditional constructions, however, emerged the jewelry pieces more familiar to those of European descent–sterling silver jewelry consisting of rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and the like.
Descendants of these Native Americans are still making jewelry today. And sterling silver is still a chief component. You see, rather than supplanting the traditional native craft, introduction of modern technology and materials only aided in the betterment of the finished product produced by these peoples. Today, you can purchase modern sterling silver jewelry: sterling silver bracelets, sterling silver rings, sterling silver necklaces, that still manifests the influence of these ancient American artisans.
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