Why is copper used for belt loops, pin backs and more in Native American jewelry?

Copper was the first metal discovered by man and has been used for thousands of years by craftsmen around the world for tools, artifacts and jewelry.

Copper was considered sacred by some Native American cultures and it continued to be used extensively even after the introduction of silver, steel, and metal alloys.

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Vintage copper bracelet with Native American symbols

Copper was abundant in the Southwest, with Arizona having one of the largest copper deposits in the world. In some areas native copper could be found just laying on the ground without the need to smelt it from ore.

Raw Copper

Raw Copper

Copper’s was and is much less expensive than silver.  Unlike steel and most other metals, copper can be easily shaped without heating.

Soldering or “sweating” is joining two pieces of metal together, using a medium called solder (pronounced “sodder”).  The metals that are being joined might be the same such as copper to copper or sterling silver to sterling silver. That type of soldering is relatively simple for an experienced metal smith.

It is when soldering two different metals together that things can get tricky in terms of the amount of heat necessary and the type of solder required.

Examples of dissimilar metal-to-metal soldering common in Native American jewelry is copper to sterling silver and steel to sterling silver.

Copper Soldered to Sterling Silver

Copper Soldered to Sterling Silver

Copper requires much less heat to solder to sterling silver than it would take to solder steel to sterling silver. Also with copper, there isn’t a specialized solder needed.

That’s why copper is the metal of choice for belt loops on concho belts and is also seen as pin backs, for example, on vintage Native American pins and pin pendants. 

Copper pin soldered to vintage sterling silver pin

Copper pin soldered to vintage sterling silver pin

Sterling silver concho belt with copper belt loops.

Sterling silver concho belt with copper belt loops.

Paula

Suspending the Jewelry Question Service

Originally posted on Native American Jewelry Tips:

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Due to my super busy schedule, I am suspending the free service I have provided in the past whereby I answer questions about your Native American jewelry.

I have found that 95% of your questions are either “What is this hallmark” or “What is this worth?”.

Since I don’t do appraisals from photos and identifying a hallmark often only helps you, I have suspended the Q&A service and instead have been using my blog time to post articles of information.

Be sure to search this blog for the answer to your question. It is possible I have posted some information that will help you answer your own question.

Paula

To view our full list of articles

http://www.horsekeeping.com/native-american-jewelry-artifacts.htm

If you are selling your jewelry, read this

http://www.horsekeeping.com/jewelry/pawn-buying.htm

Visit our pawn shop for your research and shopping

 http://www.horsekeeping.com/jewelry/pawn/pawnshop-vin.htm

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When was the STERLING stamp first used on Native American jewelry?

An exact date is not available for when the stamp STERLING was first used on Native American jewelry.

According to the book “Fred Harvey Jewelry 1900-1955” by Dennis June, the STERLING stamp appeared after 1932.

Fred Harvey bookMost Native American made items from the 1930s and before would not have a STERLING stamp nor any artist hallmark for that matter. But there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to hallmarks – there are always exceptions.

Some items made in the 1940s to 1950s might have the STERLING stamp, most notably, those made by Bell Traders during that time period.

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But in general, Native American artists began using the STERLING stamp in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, the STERLING or Sterling or 925 stamps are quite common as are artists’ hallmarks.

 

STERLING stamp

Sterling stamp

Sterling stamp

.925 or 925 indicate that the item is 92.5% silver which is the requirement for something to be called sterling silver.

.925 stamp

.925 stamp

In the vast majority of cases, if a piece of Native American jewelry is stamped with one of the above marks, the item is made from Sterling Silver.

If an item is not stamped with one of the above, this does not necessarily mean the item is not made from sterling silver. Most vintage sterling silver Native American items do not have the STERLING mark.

The only definitive way to know is to perform an acid test.

Paula

Pin Clasps on Native American Jewelry and how they help date the piece

A safety clasp on the back of a pin is the one you are probably most familiar with as it is commonly used today. It is sometimes called a locking pin finding.

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Safety clasp or locking pin finding. On the left securely locked. On the right, the open position.

Hand made safety clasps appeared on non-Native American jewelry since the 1900s.  The modern safety clasp began being manufactured in the 1930s.

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But it wasn’t until about the mid 1940’s that safety clasps became readily available to Native American silversmiths and started to show up on pins and pin-pendants.

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1940s-1950s Navajo butterfly pin with early safety clasp

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1940s – 1950s Navajo butterfly pin showing an early safety clasp

Prior to that time, the simple C clasp was used, which was a curled piece of silver on which to hook the pin – simple. If well made, it would be very secure; if not well made, the pin could bend or otherwise come unfastened.

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1930s Navajo pin

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Hand made C clasp

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Hand made C clasp

Paula

What does INGOT mean in relation to Native American jewelry?

Early Native American jewelry (pre-1930’s) was hand forged from hand made ingots. An ingot is a simply a bar or block of metal. The blocks can be any shape but are traditionally rectangles.

ingots

The metals most commonly used in Native American jewelry are sterling silver or coin silver. You can read about coin silver in a previous post. It should be noted that some vintage ingots are “blends”, that is mostly Mexican coins with a few US coins thrown in OR vice versa. Also beginning the 1930’s the blend could be sterling silver with a few US coins thrown in or any variation thereof. That’s why the exact silver content will vary widely in vintage jewelry.

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The beauty of silver is that it can be flattened, stretched, shaped and twisted using hand tools.

hand toolsTo make an ingot, the chosen metal is melted, then poured into block forms.

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Once cooled to the perfect working temperature the blocks can be hammered into sheets, wires or other shapes needed for the piece. Silver, sterling silver and coin silver are all malleable, that is they are soft enough to be worked with hand tools – the silver is often reheated in a fire pit or forge several times before the piece is finished.

Jewelry that was hand forged and hand hammered is now rare, collectible and expensive because modern jewelry is no longer hand-hammered from ingots. Rather it is made from machine-rolled sterling silver sheet and wire and pre-made elements like leaves, flowers and buttons.

One way to tell that jewelry has been hand hammered from an ingot is the evidence of folding and layering that is seen on the back side such as here on this early bracelet.

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Paula

Split Shank, Pretty Girl and Wire Bracelets

All three of these types of bracelets – split shank, Pretty Girl, and wire bracelets, are traditional Navajo and Zuni bracelet forms and all are open and airy making for comfortable summer wearing. The open spaces allow for ventilation, thus making the bracelets more comfortable to wear in hot and humid weather. Anyone who has worn a wide solid cuff in hot weather knows that it can make your wrist perspire. Perspiration can cause the copper in the sterling silver to tarnish more quickly.

A split shank bracelet is made by splitting the center portion of a solid metal strip (shank) with a saw, chisel or other tool to open it and make it wider. This makes a larger base to attach decorative elements.

Split Shank bracelet

Split Shank bracelet

The center is split into two, three, four, or five branches, most commonly three. Part of the sides and the terminal ends of the bracelet are left solid like the original metal plate – the sides can be stamped or adorned all the way to the ends.
Stamped side pieces of a split shank bracelet

Stamped side pieces of a split shank bracelet

The splits were originally made by hand with a saw or a cold chisel and a hammer. They are still done that way today but in some cases the splits are made using a hydraulic drop cutter.

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A Pretty Girl bracelet is a lightweight split shank Native American souvenir bracelet from the Fred Harvey era.  The decorations added to a Pretty Girl bracelet were set on a platform and usually were a combination of hand made and cast elements such as medallions, buttons, braids, wire and raindrops.
Split Shank Pretty Girl Bracelet

Split Shank Pretty Girl Bracelet

Pre-cut turquoise gemstones set into preformed bezel cups were the most common adornments – set onto a platform.  There were a variety of handmade and preformed platforms used  – from simple to ornate.

Split Shank Pretty Girl Bracelet

Split Shank Pretty Girl Bracelet

The edges of the bracelets were often scalloped. The side panels were often stamped with geometric designs, whirling logs, dogs, thunderbirds, arrows and more.

Five Wire bracelet, sometimes called spreadwire, made in copper by Bell Trading

The split shank bracelet, sometimes called spreadwire, made in copper by Bell Trading

Decorative stamping on the side pieces

Decorative stamping on the side pieces

border 2Whereas a split plate bracelet is is made from one piece of flat stock, a similar style bracelet, the “wire” bracelet is made from 2-10 or more separate bands of flat stock or round or triangular wire that are joined together at the ends.

Three “wire” bracelet made from three separate metal strips joined together at the terminal ends.

Three Wire bracelet made with round wire.

Three wire bracelet made with triangular wire.

Paula

Why do Navajo Pearls have hook and eye closures?

Dear Paula,

My concern is about the hook and eye closures on the silver beads (Navajo Pearls).  Are these secure?  I would think that they could fall off easily and do not understand why they do not come with a lobster claw or more secure closure.  Have most customers been satisfied with this kind of closure or do they tend to lose their jewelry? Is there anything that can be done to make this closure more secure?

Thank you.

MM

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Hello MM,

The hook and eye is traditional as the early Navajo artists did not have access to lobster claw clasps or other mechanical style clasps.

N227-squash-turq-27-5I’ve never had a necklace come undone. If you are worried you can squeeze the hook together which will make it more secure but also a little harder to hook.  Once on, I have found hook and eye closures to be quite secure.

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You could purchase a necklace extender with a lobster claw clasp. We offer both kinds but the hook and eye extenders sell 8:1 to the lobster claw clasps. It is a matter of tradition and personal preference.

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Paula