Native American Buttons and Button Covers

Buttons on Native American dresses, shirts. leggings and moccasins were originally of bone, shell, stone and other natural materials.

In the mid 1800’s, a few Navajo began to learn the art of silversmithing from Mexican plateros.

To learn more on that, read my article   Where did Navajo silversmiths learn their craft?

Early silver beads and buttons were made from coins. Later when silver and sterling silver were more available, buttons were made from ingots and sheet silver.

Read about early Navajo silversmiths.

Early buttons from about 1870 were round, flat and with two holes like conventional buttons. Plain domed silver buttons were made soon thereafter.

 

Buttons were originally for fastening garments but soon became more ornamental and even were used as a trade item. Navajo Indian agent John H. Bowman observed in 1886 “When they wish to buy anything and have no wool to exchange, they simply cut off the needed number of buttons. These vary in value from 2 1/2 cents to $1 – and are never refused as legal tender in this vicinity.”

With access to more diverse tools in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hand-made buttons were domed, filed, etched, fluted, stamped and a loop would be forge-soldered onto the back.

Stones were added about 1900.

See the end of this article for several book excerpts that show button-making techniques.

When button production became mechanized (die cut and machine stamped) hand-made buttons which were labor intensive couldn’t compete price-wise so fewer were made. That’s why hand-made Navajo buttons are fairly scarce.

 

A mixture of vintage buttons and contemporary button covers - can you tell which are which?

A mixture of vintage buttons and contemporary button covers – can you tell which are which?

Enter button covers………………

A variety of sterling silver button covers

The 1970s Native American jewelry boom (see my article The 1970s Native American Jewelry Boom) and the popularity of southwestern and western style dress beginning in the 1980s brought us the tourist version of the Native American button – the button cover –  a clever system that could be slipped over and clasped to any button to dress up a shirt or dress. Instant Urban Cowboy !

Manufactured (not Native American made) southwestern style sterling silver button covers.

Buffalo Nickel Button Covers

The hinged fasteners are machine made of plated steel or stainless steel.

Commercially stamped sterling silver button covers

The design portion or button cover top is usually made of sterling silver. They can be Native American hand-made or commercially machine made.

Contemporary Native American made button covers

Yellowhorse hallmark on above group of button covers

Since most buttons and button covers do not have hallmarks, it requires experience and a good eye to recognize design styles and see details under magnification to determine whether the button tops are hand made or machine made.

Likely these are Native American made concha style sterling silver button covers.

It is possible that the sterling silver shadowbox bear paws with turquoise cabochon were made in a Native American shop.

Navajo-made onyx button covers with dangles – you might ask why one has the oval dangle stones set horizontally and the other vertically……….this is not a set but two individual button covers designed to be worn on the top button of a shirt or blouse. So perhaps his and hers?

 

BOOK EXCERPTS SHOWING HOW BUTTONS ARE MADE

 

Indian Silversmithing by E. Ben Hunt

Indian Silversmithing by E. Ben Hunt

 

Indian Jewelry Making by Oscar T. Branson

Paula

 

Screw Back Earrings

According to Warman’s Antique Jewelry, screw back earrings date from 1909 and although still used, they are not common on new pieces.

 

Screw Back Earrings

Vintage Sterling Silver and Turquoise Screw Back Earrings

Paula

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 some sources, the STERLING stamp appeared after 1932.

Most 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.

C-ring-harveyera-4

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.

1000pcs-25mm-High-quality-Brooch-Locking-Bar-Pin-Back-with-Safety-Latch-Clasp-Back-Pins-for

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.

Vintage or antique clasp or hinge3

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.

PN430-BC-butterfly-7

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.

PN426-OS-turq-1

1930s Navajo pin

PN426-OS-turq-2

Hand made C clasp

PN426-OS-turq-3

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.

Silver-Ingots-Coins-02

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.

pouring metal cropped

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.

BP256-BC-row-turq-634-4 BP256-BC-row-turq-634-5

Paula