Sterling Silver Knifewing Inlay Box – Help with Origin?

Paula..many years ago we aquired a silver box from an inheritance. It has what I’ve come to discover…a knife wing inlay on the top…the box is solid silver and measures approx 7 x 5 x 3….Can you give me any history on this? I see on your website that you have a very similar but smaller one so I thought maybe you could shed some light on this for me. Marsha

Hello Marsha,

Well, it is always difficult to determine anything from photos, especially if there are no hallmarks.

Knifewing is depicted in a number of styles but below is one of the most common Navajo inlay designs (the box from our store).

I couldn’t say much about your box except that it seems to have large repousse areas in the lid. Repousse is a silversmith technique to create raised shapes by hammering from the underside. I’ve never seen that type of repousse design on Native American pieces, however.

I’m not sure if the photos are throwing me off but the top view makes the metal look more like tin than sterling silver, but since you just said silver, perhaps you are just referring to a silver color and you haven’t had it tested for sterling.

If it is sterling silver, of course, it would be worth more than if it was not, no matter if it is Native American made or not.

I keep having this nagging feeling, though, that it might not even be Native American made……..of course if I had it in hand, it would be easier to tell. But here are some issues that concern me. One is the “feet” which seem to be solid balls of metal, something I would associate more with a non NA box. The Native American boxes I have seen either have no feet or feet like on the box in our shop.

Here’s what I’d do if I were you.

Have the box tested to see if it is sterling silver.

Think about the person from whom you inherited the box from……..would he or she have been more likely to obtain a Native American piece or a piece from an Asian culture?

Finally, have someone knowledgeable in Native American items appraise the box in person for you if you think it could be Native American made. If it is, it could be quite valuable.

If you are not interested in its value, perhaps you should just enjoy it for what it is !

Who is Knifewing?

Knifewing, also Knife Wing, is a half man – half eagle Zuni spirit or god with razor sharp feathers made of flint. He is the ultimate warrior.

Anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who lived with the Zunis from 1879-1884 described knifewing this way:

“This curious god is the hero of hundreds of folklore tales, the tutelary deity of several societies of Zuni. He is represented as possessing a human form, furnished with flint knife-feathered pinions, and tail. His dress consists of the conventional terraced cap (representative of his dwelling place among the clouds). His weapons are the Great Flint-Knife of War, the Bow of the Skies (the Rainbow), and the Arrow of Lightning. His guardians or warriors are the Great Mountain Lion of the North and that of the upper regions. He was doubtless the original War God of the Zunis.”

Horace Iule (also known for his crosses) is credited with creating the first knifewing design in the late 1920s, cut and filed out of wrought silver. Afterwards, other Zuni, Navajo and Pueblo began producing knifewing designs. The knifewing became one of the first designs that the Zuni inlaid with stones.

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5 thoughts on “Sterling Silver Knifewing Inlay Box – Help with Origin?

  1. Hello. I have a few thoughts on it. The knifewing figure looks like excellent Native American work, really nice, but the decorations on the box look European, Anglo. The flower, for example, as opposed to a squash blossom. So I wonder if it was commissioned by a European family to be created by a Native American and if that’s why it’s a mixture of cultures. Just a thought.

  2. Good afternoon ….Well…I had it tested …and it is fact sterling silver…it weighs approx. 16 oz….they told me it is a handmade piece judging from the hammer marks that are apparent on the inside of the box. I still have no clue what the origin is…the lady we got it from visited the southwest a lot in her younger years…but unfortunately she passed away not long after we acquired it. So…guess I’ll just do what you said and just enjoy it for what it is and wait until someone can eventually figure it out for me. …Thanks for your input…Marsha

  3. My understanding is that the boxes are Navajo and the Inlay work Zuni. C. G. Wallace, a trader at Zuni for many years had Navajo and Zuni artists working for him. Here are a few references:
    http://www.ohio.edu/museum/zuni/leo_poblano.html
    http://www.ohio.edu/museum/zuni/leekyadeyuse.html
    http://michaelsmithgallery.com/gallery/artifacts/jewelry/7041/
    Arizoina Highways Jan 1974, page 13 illustrates a box
    Arizona Highways August 1974, page 14

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