What is a Native American Hallmark?
Native American jewelry is art and as such, it is often signed by the artist. This signature is called a hallmark.
A hallmark can be a stamp, that is, an impression made into the sterling silver (or other material) by holding a die on the silver and striking the die with a hammer. Depending on the temperature of the silver, the integrity of the die, the force of the blow, the steadiness of the hands, and other factors, the resulting stamped hallmark will range from faint to deep, from fuzzy to clear.
Stamped hallmarks can be all types of letters in various fonts as well as pictures and symbols.
Another way Native American artists sign pieces is by using an engraver, also called and “electric pencil”.
Zuni artists use this method to write out an entire name, or at least the last name, and often Zuni, NM too. Fetish carvers use an engraver to sign their mini sculptures and depending on the size of the base, they might be initials or a full name.
In addition to individual symbol hallmarks, Shop and Guild marks are used. Shop and Guild marks (and there are many) are usually an image such as a bell (Bell Trading for example) or a sunface (a Hopi mark).
When a piece has a shop mark it is hard to identify which specific artist did the work, and in many cases, it is a collaborative effort – one person does the silversmithing, one does stone setting, another inlays etc. With shop hallmarks, it is impossible to guarantee that the work has been done by a Native American artist as shops can employ anyone.
With Guilds, however, it is almost certain that the work is Native American because membership in the guild is usually based on tribal affiliation.
Why are Native American hallmarks important?
In many cases, the hallmark on a piece of Native American jewelry is the only definitive proof that a particular item was made by a particular person. But even this is not foolproof because counterfeiters copy hallmarks onto their foreign-made, faux Native American items. The very best way to use hallmarks is in conjunction with paperwork, provenance, point of purchase, quality of workmanship and materials, the artist’s style and other factors that an experienced eye will see.
Why is it Difficult to Identify Native American Hallmarks?
Native American hallmarks are not an exact science. A number of factors make hallmark identification difficult:
1. Several artists might use the same hallmark. For example, over 20 Native American artists have used S for their hallmark.
2. An artist might change his or her hallmark several times during a lifetime. The late Tommy Singer, for example, has used the following hallmarks (all stamped). Perhaps there are even more:
T with a crescent moon
S with a crescent moon
S T and a crescent moon
T. Singer (in cursive)
3. Family members might use a (famous) father’s, mother’s, brother’s, uncle’s or cousin’s hallmark. As an example, you will see this in the Iule family (known for their crosses) and the Effie Calavaza family (known for Zuni Snake bracelets and other snake items).
4. Native Americans that sell jewelry at trade shows and fairs but do not make the jewelry themselves have told us that the associations hosting the event require that all items must be authentic Native American made and hallmarked. So when we asked about some of the hallmarks on the pieces we saw, we were told “Joe XXXX doesn’t used a hallmark on his jewelry. We just put something on his pieces because we were told we had to in order to sell it at the powwow so we used this hallmark “xyz”.” True story. Names changed.
5. Depending how well the hallmark is placed onto the silver, it may or may not be readable and could be confused with another hallmark.
6. Sometimes a piece will inadvertently not get marked. We’ve often purchased 6 similar pendants directly from an artist only to get home to see that 5 have hallmarks and one does not.
When did hallmarks first appear?
Native American artists haven’t always used hallmarks. Early items in the First Phase period usually had no hallmarks because the items were made for personal or family use, not for sale.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s the few hallmarks that appeared were made by chisel marks
In the 1950s, the Navajo Guild, among others, encouraged hallmark use by its members.
During the Native American jewelry boom of the 1970s, hallmarks kicked into full swing and their use continues to this day on the majority of jewelry items.
And yet the bottom line is:
Many authentic Native American made pieces have no hallmarks. The majority of stone necklaces (heishi, nugget etc) do not have hallmarks. The same goes for many silver bead necklaces. However, If silver beads are large enough, sometimes the artist will stamp the last bead up by the clasp with a hallmark.
Alternatively, silver and stone necklaces might have a signature plate.
Items like twist bracelets, for example, just do not have a flat place to add a hallmark.
But what’s particularly bad is that some pieces with seemingly authentic hallmarks are on pieces that are not NA made.
How can you learn about the hallmark on your piece?
BOOKS – A number of books have been written identifying stamped hallmarks. You can purchase the books or look for them in your library. Here are a few:
Hallmarks of the Southwest (A Schiffer Book for Collectors)
Hopi Silver: The History and Hallmarks of Hopi Silversmithing
WEBSITES – There are also some websites that list hallmarks. Here is one to get you started, but you can search on the internet to find more.
You can browse our website and use the search link at the top of most pages to search for your hallmark. If we have or have had an item with that hallmark you will be able to find it on our site.
Once you have exhausted all sources and still can not find the hallmark on your piece, you could submit it as a question through our website. In addition to the resources above, we can sift through our memories and look through our hand compiled lists to see if we can help. But, we receive quite a few questions every week so it will likely be 30-60 days before your question is answered.
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