My introduction to Native American and Mexican jewelry came early during my childhood, as my mother ran her Mexican Craft Shop based in Portland, Oregon. She kept her own collection of Southwestern turquoise and silver jewelry and made many trips to Mexico to fill up her shop. I was captivated by turquoise and silver, and the pre-Columbian motifs found in Mexican jewelry. Naturally, my eyes became trained in identifying the jewelry from the vibrant surroundings of my youth.
Native American Jewelry: Treasure of the Southwest
Silversmithing began in the American Southwest prior to 1880. Native Americans made turquoise and silver jewelry for themselves and the tourist trade. The artisans were members of the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes. Each tribe has its own particular style and design. Therefore, these differences can give direction (in most cases) to determining the tribe.
Navajo Indian jewelry appeared first and focused on the tooling of silver, often accented by turquoise and other gemstones. There was likely (and this is debatable) no indigenous silver industry until contact with the Spaniards, who influenced Navajo decorative works. Early silversmiths melted down the silver currency, candlesticks, and utensils to make their jewelry. While Mexican currency was the easiest to work with. Silver dies were adapted from those used to tool leather, and soldering was used to set stone and other ornamentation.
Navajo artisans were adept at decorative silverwork, even before adding turquoise to their repertoire. Design drawn from horse regalia is the basis of much of the older jewelry. This influenced Hollywood in the 1950-60s. Highly prized, for example, were concho belts, elaborate belt buckles, and the squash blossom necklace. Navajo jewelry tends to use Spanish leatherwork decorations, abstract silver designs, turquoise cluster work, or one stunning stone surrounded by silver embellishment.
Zuni jewelry appeared around 1872. It is notable for its emphasis on complex lapidary work. Among the techniques include inlay (stones set side by side), channel inlay (stones set with silver channels be-tween), petit point, and needlepoint work. Zuni artisans use traditional colors – turquoise, red coral, mother of pearl, and jet. There is rarely any deviation from this color scheme, while Navajo inlay jewelry may combine any stone or colors together. In addition, a Zuni-made bracelet or squash blossom necklace will have very regular flat oval stones (petit point) or slim slivers of stone (needlepoint).
A subset of Zuni jewelry is channel work, by the Dishta family, which has a look and feel all its own. Accordingly, this style encompasses organic designs made of tiny round or teardrop shaped stones, clustered to form a tiny mosaic. Uniquely, the stones are leveled flat within the silver channel work.
Hopi Indian Jewelry
Hopi Indian jewelry is known for its intricate cutouts and silver overlay. This style began in the late 1930s. The overlay technique consists of two layers of silver. First, the top piece is cut-out with realistic designs or abstract symbols. Second, the layers are soldered together, forming a thick band that may be left flat or folded into another form. Often, with oxidation to the bottom piece to make a stunning design.
Mexican Jewelry: Combining the Past and the Future with Artistic Flare
Let’s move on to Mexican silver. Most collectors seek jewelry produced during the 1940s through the 1960s.
The story begins in Taxco. Known for silver mining and jewelry, Taxco was a Spanish colonial town. It is located in the Mexican state of Guerrero. During the 1920s, an American designer, William Spratling, revitalized Taxco silversmithing trade. Spratling set up workshops and exported mostly to the U.S. He hired two master goldsmiths from the nearby town of Iguala and encouraged them to experiment in silver. Pre-Columbian art influences, and motifs, along with other native ornamentation, frequently show up in Spratling designs. He employed hundreds of artisans while insisting on high-quality materials and precise techniques for production.
From this beginning, a number of his talented Mexican designers established workshops in their own right, and thus developed the distinctive Taxco School. Merging Pre-Columbian, Spanish colonial style, and local popular arts with modernism, while these designers invented a new aesthetic which became highly popular. In the 1940s and 50s, picturesque Taxco was a haven for Hollywood tourism. These affluent stars of the film industry fueled a silver renaissance that created many opportunities for Mexican designers.
The Rise of Taxco Designers
Antonio Castillo and his four brothers were all trained in Spratling’s shop. They opened their company, Los Castillo, and introduced a style of jewelry that married two or more metals together. Antonio married Margot Carr Banburges, an artist who created marvelous designs in her famous Margot De Taxco Silver shop. Collected around the world, her shop operated through the mid-1950s. Melecio Rodriguez worked for her and continues to produce stunning handcrafted jewelry.
Subsequently, during this period, interesting applications of materials arose: combinations of wood and silver, the introduction of semi-precious stones such as obsidian, amethyst, onyx, turquoise, and jet. Pre-Columbian motifs proliferate: traditional feathered serpents, ancient Aztec patterns, and stones hand carved into Mayan masks set in silver. In fact some designers even set original artifacts into their modern jewelry, exploring this dynamic combination. Another one of Spratling’s disciples, Hector Aguilar worked in organic forms, Pre-Columbian, Modernist, and Aztec revival themes.
Mexican Modernist Style
Mexican modernist decoration includes abstraction of natural forms, cubism, brutalism, and space-age futuristic shapes. Even surrealism creeps in, using mundane objects as subject matter for jewelry. Although born to the Mexican artistic tradition, Antonio Pineda’s most successful works are in the modernist style. Known for its futuristic designs and ingenious use of gem-stones, Antonio’s jewelry exemplified the Taxco Modernist style. The stones seem to float free, with as little metal touching them as possible.
Spanish colonialism influenced silver decoration as well. Because of this, Mexican jewelry may share similarities with Navajo jewelry – so they can be confused. By the 1960s, each group was borrowing from each other and incorporating similar elements in their designs. In addition, the Spaniards brought over their gold and silver filigree technique which was taken up by Mexican artisans – and left a legacy of fantastical filigree flowers, butterflies, and sombreros.
The Key to Identifying Mexican Jewelry
While I have mentioned just a few of the many remarkable designers from the Taxco School. I’m fortunate to have in my collection examples from Los Ballesteros, Rancho Alegre Gallery, Melecio Rodriguez, Estella Popowsky, and William Spratling.
However, not all Mexican silver is marked by the maker. Assessing the quality and considering the silver production marks can help date a piece. For example, silver eagle maker’s marks indicate the location where an item was made. A #1 would indicate Mexico City, and a #3 indicate Taxco. In addition, the silver content stamp (925, 950, 980, etc.) can help set the age and maker. Becoming familiar with collectible silversmiths will help you determine the quality and value of obscure artists and unsigned pieces.
In addition, to read more about the Vintage Jewelry Team click here.