Old Pawn…the real, real Indian jewelry

Excerpted from an article in Arizona Highways Magazine, March 1975

Vintage Native American Pawn Shop

On the Navajo Indian reservation anything 100 years old is very old, ancient, or antique. People and property of 50 years are old. Off the Navajo Indian reservation old pawn represents the real Indian jewelry.

Contrary to opinions of pseudo-experts, old pawn was not jewelry made only for pawn. Old pawn is not merely a piece of jewelry that an Indian has pawned because he has needed money. The search for old pawn is motivated by more than a romantic urge.

For us, the value and emotional attraction for old pawn Indian jewelry is that it has been owned, appreciated, worn, and used by real living Indians. We see old pawn jewelry as an intimate relic of a people and a culture which is slowly and inevitably disappearing into history. The more we learn of Indian silversmiths and old pawn jewelry the more we are convinced that the old silversmiths produced a higher standard of their art for Indians than they did for traders and non-Indians.

When a Navajo man or woman wanted a piece of jewelry he went to a silversmith, usually a relative. The piece was made to order and scaled to the wearer’s size and build. In most cases the buyer furnished the makings – silver, turquoise, old jewelry or whatever was needed.

Indian jewelry served as decoration, a display of wealth, and as collateral against loans at the trading post. The pawn rack was an important and respectable part of the economic and social life of the Navajo. Jewelry moved in and out of pawn at regular seasonal intervals synchronized to the spring and fall lamb, wool, and harvest activities. Much of the jewelry was withdrawn from pawn during the summer dances and ceremonials, and returned to the vaults again during the winter months.

The discerning Navajo knew beauty and excellence in craftsmanship and would not wear sloppily made, poorly constructed silver. The quality and color of turquoise may not have been the best, but the silversmithing was something else. The Navajos kept their silver bright, shining, and untarnished by brushing it in yucca suds and water.

The amount of cash or credit advanced depended on the amounts of silver and turquoise, and the owner’s credit rating with the post. It was seldom that a Navajo pawned all his silver with one trader. Old established traders set their own time limits with the individual regardless of the general law which only required traders to hold pawn for thirty days.

One licensed pawn rack at Gallup, New Mexico holds jewelry in the vault for 90 days. If the loan contract is not satisfied or renewed, it goes on display in a warning case for 30 days before it is classified as dead pawn.

In summary the old pawn racks were rich and splendid sources of the jewelry created by the finest Navajo silversmiths of their day, for their own people, and uncontaminated by taste and influence of alien people and cultures. If a piece of old Navajo pawn could talk, what a story it would tell of dances, ceremonials, and happy times along the beautiful way of Indian life.

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