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?




Indian Silversmithing by E. Ben Hunt

Indian Silversmithing by E. Ben Hunt


Indian Jewelry Making by Oscar T. Branson



Where did Navajo silversmiths learn their craft?

“The Navajo were the first Southwest American Indians to work silver……A man named Astidi Sani (Old Smith) is credited by historians as being the fist Navajo silversmith. His Spanish name was Herrero Delgadito (Little Ironworker). Reportedly he acquired a basic knowledge of ironworking in 1853 from a Mexican blacksmith/silversmith.”

From Indian Jewelry, Fact & Fantasy by Marsha Land


Early Navajo metalwork was limited to iron and was for utilitarian purposes (knife blades, bits), not adornment.

Mexican Silversmiths (plateros), on the other hand, were typically adorned with silver as a display of their wealth and, for some, their metal-working skills – silver concha belts, buckles, buttons on shirts and down the sides of pants, hat bands, silver embellished saddles and headstalls and much more.

This side view of a pair of vintage Mexican charro pants (circa 1890) give you an idea of the lavish silver embellishments. 473425273_fullsizeAn example of an ornate vintage Mexican silver saddle.


John Lawrence Hubbell opened his first trading post at Ganado, Arizona in 1873.  When the well-dressed nomadic plateros came to the Ganado area, the Navajo took notice. Soon they began to trade horses and livestock to the plateros in exchange for learning metal-working skills.

Early Sterling Silver Cuff Bracelet

Early Sterling Silver Cuff Bracelet

Hubbell saw the potential in of Navajo silverwork for his trading post so he brought in two Mexican silversmiths (Thick Lips and Benedito) to teach their skills to the Navajo he had working for him.

From Navajo Silver, a brief history of Navajo Silversmithing


The dictionary mentioned in the following quote was published in 1910.


Early Sterling Silver Sandcast Concha Belt

Early Sterling Silver Sandcast Concha Belt

For a much more detailed account of Atsidi Sani AKA Herrero, as well as how Navajo smiths learned silver casting methods from plateros and much more………. read John Adair’s book:

scan0226Metal-working skills were passed from the Spaniards to the Mexicans and then to the Navajo. Interestingly, early Navajo silversmiths chose to use leather stamping tools for their designs, thus distinguishing Navajo pieces from Mexican silver work early on.

toolOf course, that was just the beginning and soon Navajo silversmiths, and other Native American craftsmen, began to develop unique designs and styles which continue to evolve today.

Carinated Cuff Bracelet

Carinated Cuff Bracelet

Watch for more on this topic in a future post.


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.


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

.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.


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.


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.

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


What does “Vintage” mean in relation to Native American Jewelry?

Hi Paula,

I’m a regular shopper in your Pawn Shop and wonder what vintage means?


Hi Sue,

Webster defines the word vintage as a general term that is associated with a particular year such as a wine being of vintage 2009, for example. So in reality, it does not, in a global sense, designate any particular age, just “of an age”.

Here at Horsekeeping LLC, we have developed our own definition of vintage to describe items in our pawn shop. Here is that definition along with some other terms related to age.

Vintage – 30 years old or older, so something made in the 1980s or earlier. (However, with clothing, vintage means items made 20 years before the present day.)

NOS – New Old Stock. Made at least 20 years ago but never used.

Pre-Owned – An item of any age but that has been used.

First Phase – From 1860-1900. Read more about First Phase and Transition Period in  First Phase in Native American Jewelry

Patina – A dark or colored film of oxidation that forms naturally on metal by exposure to air and other elements. It is often valued for its aesthetically pleasing appearance. All items in our Pawn Shop, even NOS, have some patina. We leave it that way as some people like the natural patina. Otherwise sterling silver can be buffed back to a brilliant shine.

Here is another related article on the subject

Is this a rare style of Squash Blossom Necklace? Is it vintage?

Visit our pawn shop to learn more.  Paula

pawn shopBST465-625-cobblestone-spencer-1

To view our full list of article or to ask a jewelry question, follow the instructions here

If you are selling your jewelry, read this


First Phase vs First Phase Style

The phrase “Native American Jewelry” is often misused to describe “Native American style jewelry”.

For serious collectors, the phrase Native American Jewelry means an item made by a Native American artist.

Native American Made Cluster Bracelet by Robert and Bernice Leekya, Zuni

Native American Made Cluster Bracelet by Robert and Bernice Leekya, Zuni

For someone trying to sell a pewter cast buffalo pendant, they might call it a Native American pendant, but it is NOT !! It might be Native American style but that’s as close as it gets.

Cast Pewter Buffalo Pendant - NOT Native American Made, but could be though of as Native American STYLE

Cast Pewter Buffalo Pendant – NOT Native American Made, but could be though of as Native American STYLE

Similarly, some sellers call certain items, most notably concha belts, “First Phase” when in reality they are reproductions of First Phase items.  Read about First Phase here in my article

First Phase in Southwestern Native American Jewelry

Reproductions, whether or not they are made by a Native American artist, should not be called First Phase.  Instead, they should be called First Phase Style or First Phase Revival or Copy of First Phase or something similar. Then it should be clearly stated in the detailed description that the item is NOT from the First Phase which is generally considered to be from 1860-1900.

Is it real or is it Memorex??

Is it real or is it Memorex??


Is this a rare style of Squash Blossom Necklace? Is it vintage?

Hi Paula,
My husband recently purchased a squash blossom necklace for me at an auction.   There is no signature…and we have no idea how old it is, just that we were told it is vintage.   What makes it vintage?  How old does it have to be?
It is the most beautiful squash blossom necklace I have ever seen.  Lots of silver in the quarter size settings and the turquoise is veined so beautifully.
I have looked all over the net – trying to find a similar piece – but none of them have the setting style that my piece has.   I am attaching photos of the naja and the entire necklace and the back.   Wondering if this style is rare or if the artist hasn’t done a lot of work in this style?   Anything you could tell me about it would be appreciated.   Because it isn’t marked, I have no idea who the artist is…but it is excellent work!
DSCN3795 DSCN3797 DSCN3799Hi Shannon,
First of all, what unique stones !! ((As far as what kind of stones they are, be sure to read the comments left by other readers.))
Your necklace looks very handmade as evidenced by the smooth bezels and the handmade leaves.
As far as the leaves and tendrils, those are common Navajo design elements. Although your squash blossom necklace has no blossoms (like in the photo below) it is still configured in the squash blossom necklace style.
Here are a few Navajo items that use leaves and tendrils.
N201-squash-turq-nugget-2PR510-55-SF-turq-draper-1PR605-625-SF-coral-turq-1 PR606-6-SF-coral-leaf-1So to answer if your necklace is rare ? The stones are unique and the fact that it is very handmade and has no blossoms……all unique features, so a treasure for you ! As to whether it is Native American made, I do not want to venture a guess from photos.
As far as the definition of vintage, antique, etc etc., all of that is up for interpretation depending on the category of the item and who is using the words. But these are the guidelines we use here at horsekeeping.

Vintage is 30 years old or older, so something made in the early 1980s or before.


Vintage Corn Row Bracelet

We call a piece NOS, New Old Stock, if it is at least 20 years old but has never been used.
Below is a NOS (New Old Stock) bracelet made in the 1970s but never used.
The term antique (which loosely means about 50-100 years old but more accurately 80-100 years old) is usually not used in relation to Native American pieces, but First Phase is. You can read about First Phase here. Note that there are a number of sellers who call things First Phase that are really contemporary. What they should say is First Phase Style or something like that – a design that harkens back to an older piece. True First Phase pieces are from approximately 1860-1900.
Retro (from a style era past or a revival of a past style)  is another word that isn’t really used often with Native American jewelry but if it were used it might be used to describe contemporary versions of Fred Harvey era trading post items – when people see the symbol bracelets, for example, they say “that’s retro”.
Retro Fred Harvey bracelet.