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