Southwest Native American Rings

A few years back a woman wrote me saying:

“I am looking for one of those turquoise indian rings.”

I thought, “Gee……..where do I start”……….?? So I asked her to describe the one she was looking for and she said “like a wedding band”. I immediately thought of the Zuni inlay rings that have been popular for many years and sold all over the southwest. I sent her this photo and she said – “Exactly”.

Phew, that was an easy one.

Shortly after that a man wrote asking for a ring like he saw in Thunderheart (the movie)

Now there I had a better idea of what he was looking for since I have watched that movie a dozen times and even got my husband a ring like the big turquoise oval one in the movie.

1 3/8″ turquoise ring by the late M. NARANJO, Tewa

However, there were at least 4 different types of rings in the movie, so I devoted a blog article to answer his question in detail – to see examples of the 4 rings in the movie, click the link below.

I want to get a ring like I saw in the movie Thunderheart

Over the years I have helped a number of people find the ring of their dreams. But I thought one way to further help would be to categorize, describe and show photos of some of the more commonly made types of Native American rings, thus creating a vocabulary of sorts to allow a dialogue to get started.

MATERIALS

In most cases, Native American rings are made from sterling silver – you can read about silver by clicking the link below to my blog post:

Jewelry Silver – Not All Silver is Created Equal

Some rings are solely made of sterling. But the vast majority also feature stones, shells and other materials.

Here is a list of commonly used materials in Native American rings: (I have written articles about some of the materials, so you can click on those that are hyperlinks to learn more). To read about other materials, look in the right hand column of the home page of this blog and you’ll see an outline of article topics – scroll to Materials – there are plenty more materials listed there.

Acoma Jet
Bear Claws and other claws
Coral
Gaspeite
Jasper
Lapis Lazuli
Mother of Pearl
Onyx
Opal (natural and imitation)
Malachite
Petrified Wood
Spiny Oyster (orange and purple)
Tiger Eye
Turquoise
White Buffalo Stone

TRIBAL STYLES

Generally southwest Native American rings are made by Navajo, Zuni or Hopi jewelers.

In VERY general terms, I’ll first describe the types of rings associated with each tribe but I’ll provide much more detail throughout this article.

Navajo rings are typically a sterling silver band, often heavy and/or elaborate. The band can be silver only or have stones that are set with various types of bezels.  For more information on bezels, read my article  Types of Bezels  If a Navajo ring is inlaid, the inlay pieces are usually separated by silver channels.

Zuni rings are usually either stone-on-stone inlays (no silver channels in between the pieces), snake rings, snake eyepetit point or needlepoint. 

Hopi rings are most often sterling silver overlays with contrasting (oxidized) and textured backgrounds.

NAVAJO RINGS

There are a number of ring styles that are associated with Navajo silversmiths. I’ll mention some of the most common and popular.

Storyteller

One traditional style of Navajo silver ring is a storyteller. Individual scenes depicting daily life are cut out of a sheet of silver and layed over an oxidized background.

Storyteller bracelets show Navajo life. The home (hogan) and the activities around the home such as cooking, weaving, tending livestock, driving a wagon to town. The scenery of the area such as buttes, trees and shrubs and sometimes clouds are also depicted.

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Silver

There is nothing better for everyday wear than a well-made silver Navajo ring. Below is a slide show depicting some popular silver Navajo ring styles including stamped, repousse, overlay and more. Click here to see more silver rings.

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Sandcast

Sand cast and tufa cast items are made using a mold into which molten silver is poured. Click to read more about Cast Jewelry, To see more cast rings, click here

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Single Stone Turquoise

Possibly the most iconic Navajo ring is the single turquoise stone. Put one on and you feel like a million dollars. Below is a wonderful array of single stone turquoise rings, both polished cabochons and nuggets. To see more turquoise rings, click here.

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Single Stone Other

When you need a Jet or Mother of Pearl or Lapis ring to go with your outfit, you will likely be able to find a beautiful Navajo single stone ring to fit the bill. To see more single stone rings, click here

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Cluster

Cluster refers to a group of stones usually set in a circular or oval pattern. While often associated with Zuni artists, there are a number of Navajo smiths that have made cluster rings over the years. To see the cluster rings we have for sale, click here 

Turquoise and Coral

A very popular color combination is coral and turquoise together. Turquoise is a happy stone by itself – add a dash of coral and you’ll just be giddy ! Very classic and classy. To see the turquoise and coral rings we have to offer, click here

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MOP and Other Shell

Mother of Pearl, Pink Shell, Abalone, Paua Shell and other shells add a bit of gleam and glitter to a ring. To see more examples, click here.  

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Claw

Claw rings are a popular design, especially with men, The claws can be real or faux claws and traditionally are bear but can also be from smaller animals like coyotes. To see more examples of bear claw rings, click here.

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Silver Channel Inlay

Navajo inlay usually features silver channels between pieces of stone. Click here to see more.

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Inlay

Although pictorial inlay is more commonly associated with Zuni artists, there are a number of Navajo that make beautiful and unique inlay rings. Click here to see vintage Navajo rings. 

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Corn Row, Cobblestone and Mosaic Inlay

Three types of inlay that are somewhat similar are Mosaic Inlay (click the link to go to a separate article), Corn Row and Cobblestone inlay. They are a more 3 dimensional type of inlay than the flat inlay of Zuni artists.

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Shadowbox

The shadowbox technique consists of a cutout top layer that is usually (but not always) domed and that is soldered to a solid bottom layer with or without a dark contrasting background. The shadowbox might be all silver or incorporate stones.

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Leaf and Feather

A very popular design style for Navajo rings, especially those made for the tourist trade, is the incorporation of a leaf or feather along with the other silver work or stones. The leaves and feather might be hand made or the could be ready-made cast pieces that the silversmith purchases from a trading post and adds onto the ring. Some wrap around rings are made of a single feather. To see many examples of leaf and feather rings, click here.

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Cigar Band

Cigar band style refers to a wide band with stamping. To read more about this style, click on my post- What is a Cigar Band Ring? 

Here is an example of a cigar band ring using White Buffalo Stone. It was made by Tony Garcia. 

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ZUNI RINGS

Zuni rings are usually one of 4 types: Inlay, Petit Point, Needlepoint and Snake Eye.

Inlay

Zuni inlay is usually stone-on-stone inlay, that is, the stone or shell pieces touch each other, there is no silver channel work in between. However, just as I say that, you will see below some examples of Zuni inlay that does incorporate silver channels. There are no hard and fast rules – just generalizations.

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Petit Point

Petit Point is comprised of long, narrow teardrop-shaped stones and possibly round dots.

Needlepoint 

Needlepoint is comprised of straight, long, narrow stones that are pointed on both ends. Here are examples of needlepoint rings:

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Snake Eye

Snake Eye rings are comprised of many tiny spherical cabochons of turquoise (usually). You can read more about Snake Eye in my article

Here is a 100 stone snake eye ring by April and Peter Halloo, Zuni

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Here are more examples of snake eye rings:

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Snake Rings

Some Zuni families, most notably that of Effie Calavaza, make snake motif rings.

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HOPI RINGS

Hopi rings are traditionally overlay with contrasting (oxidized) and texturized backgrounds. Sometimes the designs are easily recognizable animal and other natural elements, other times they are abstracts.

Here is an example of a Hopi overlay ring by Raymond Kyasyousie.

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More hopi ring examples:

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To read more about rings, here is an interesting book that I reviewed here on this blog:

Book Look: Southwestern Indian Rings by Paula A. Baxter

 

Paula

Mike Schmaltz Brings a Dragonfly to Life

Native American pieces that are completely handmade are becoming harder to find.  By NA handmade, I mean made in the USA by a registered Native American using no manufactured elements. Its like cooking from scratch – using whole foods and no canned ingredients.

Jewelry by Algonquin artist Mike Schmaltz is not only handmade but beautiful and unique.

Michael (Poole) Schmaltz started making jewelry full time in 1973. He learned jewelry through making many mistakes and learning what not to do. He picked up some valuable tips by watching a few master Zuni silversmiths who were more than willing to share. He learned the art of hot forging ingots into sheet and wire from the blow by blow description of Tom Burnsides hammering silver that is described in the book The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths by John Adair.

Let’s step inside Mike’s shop and watch him create a coin silver dragonfly pendant from concept to finish.

 

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Photo 1 – The design and dimensions are roughed out on graph paper.

Photo 2 The coin silver ingot is heated to a dull red, then taken to the anvil . When it turns black, it is pounded with a heavy hammer all over all surfaces, then reheated and pounded again. These steps are repeated until the required shape, thickness, and size is reached. It takes a lot of experience to know when to reheat so as to not get a cracked ingot.

To read more about coin silver click here.

What does Coin Silver mean in relation to Native American jewelry ?

 

Photo 3 The sheet is flattened by pounding with a polished faced hammer. Once the sheet is large enough for the project, the design is drawn on the metal.

Photo 4 The stamping is done and the outline of the dragonfly is cut out.

 

Photo 5 The smooth bezels are made to best suit the piece of jewelry. They are set in position and soldered in place. The stones will be cut to fit the bezels.

Photo 6 The edge of the body is refined and silver raindrop accents are added down both sides.

 

Mike makes all of his wire from ingot, hand drawing the wire through a draw plate.

Photo 7 The wire legs and Shepherd’s Hook are soldered in place.

Photo 8 The back complete with hallmarks

Photo 9 – The front complete and almost ready for stones.

Photo 10 – The dragonfly is antiqued with liver of sulphur which is then removed from the high spots with steel wool.

Photo 11 Now it is time to choose the stones. A few test ovals were drawn on this beautiful Chinese turquoise but it was determined that in small pieces this stone would be too dark.

Photo 12 – The Morenci stones have more bright color and variation so were chosen for this piece.

Photo 13 – The eyes are made by grinding spots out of the turquoise head and cutting jet to fit.

Photo 14 – Each stone is cut to fit a bezel and set one at a time with a little sawdust cushion underneath the stone to help prevent future cracking of the stone.

Photo 15 – And the finished dragonfly pendant. Ready to be hung from a strand of beads.

Mike’s jewelry speaks for itself – it is genuinely beautiful.

Thank you Mike for your photos and comments for this article.

Paula

Many Men Thank Mary Bill on Mother’s Day

Mary Bill, along with her husband Ken Bill, is known for crafting heavy Sterling bracelets with and without gold.

Customarily, she uses at least 10 gauge sheet silver (and often 8 gauge) making her bracelets thick, durable and with great appeal to men.

Often she finishes the ends with a widened fishtail for comfort.

Sometimes she uses a lighter gauge silver and then use a combination of stamping, oxidation, and lightly brushing to give a satin finish.

She also makes substantial link bracelets

She has used and uses a number of hallmarks usually with STERLING and often with NAVAJO

Here are some of them:
K & M BILL
Mary and Ken Bill
Mary (often along with KENNETH BILL)
Mary Bill

Thank you Mary Bill and Happy Mother’s Day !

Paula

Navajo Silversmith Roland Dixson

Navajo silversmith and artist Roland Dixson produces traditional sterling silver pieces with excellent casting and stampwork.

Roland Dixson Naja Pendant

Roland Dixson Naja Pendant

Characteristics of his style include scalloped edges with deeply domed centers.

Roland Dixson belt buckle with scalloped edges

Roland Dixson belt buckle with scalloped edges

The stamping is deep, intricate and not repetitive from piece to piece. He also incorporates repousse as evidenced in the photo showing the back of the buckle.

Roland Dixson buckle back showing evidence of repousse

Roland Dixson buckle back showing evidence of repousse

Repousse is a technique whereby metal is hammered into relief from the reverse side.

From the pieces that have come through our store, it appears that Roland Dixson uses only natural, untreated turquoise. Here is his hallmark.

Roland Dixson hallmark

Roland Dixson hallmark

I don’t know much about this artist so if anyone has any biographical information, I’d love to hear it.

Recently Roland wrote me and here is what he said:

“Hello this is Roland Dixson, I make different piece from conch belts, to rings pendants, buckles and bracelets…I also can be contacted @ Dick Elkins Trading in Thoreou, NM. (505) 862-7000. , I’m thankful you got a good eye for my work I enjoy what I do, I have many mentors just to name a few the late Kirk Smith, Tommy Singer, Thomas Curtis and Tommy Billie. All well known silver Smiths. They also shared some of their skills with me. Thank you. Roland Dixson”

Here are some more of the pieces he is currently working on.

Paula

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Paula, Can you help identify this brass bracelet?

Hello Paula,
We have recently come across a Native American cuff bracelet that we
would like to see if you or any of your blog followers could help with
identifying it.It is brass inlayed with turquoise and red coral. The
inside is marked with HB and with the second leg of the H and the
upright of the B being shared. Also above the HB are two symbols that
look very much like a pair of human eyelashes. 🙂 The design of the
inlay looks like water or waves. We do have pics available if you
would like to see them. Thanks so much.
Kim and Joe

BrassCuffBraceletFrontRC BrassCuffBraceletMark lightenedHi Kim and Joe,

This copper cuff bracelet is decorated with chip inlay.

Copper is a pure elemental metal that has been and is being used by Native American artists. Read all about copper here. 

Brass is an alloy made of copper and zinc. I have never seen Native American Jewelry made from Brass.

What is Chip Inlay?

Chip inlay is a method where cavities in jewelry are filled with a mixture of crushed stone, typically turquoise and coral, and epoxy resin. The piece is then polished smooth after the resin has hardened.

The cojoined initials HB have been used by several artists, Hispanic and Navajo. One celebrated (deceased) Navajo artist used a cojoined HB but verified versions of his hallmark look different than the hallmark on your bracelet so I hesitate to suggest his name lest it be associated wrongly. I do see many items on eBay with all variations of HB and other hallmarks being attributed to this noted artists yet none of the hallmarks are the same !

As far as the eyelashes – they are made with a common stamping tool that is used to decorate metal pieces, perhaps to represent rays of the sun (or possibly rain) such as is on the front of your bracelet and on this barrette.

BAR807-ABC--silver-C crop

The rays could be a shop mark in addition to the artist’s mark.

Or they could be an intentional part of the artist’s personal hallmark. One artist put fringe-like-rays around his initials, but usually it was an entire box, not just a topper.

However, I don’t recognize these particular lashes/rays nor do they appear in any of my hallmark references.

Therefore at this point, all I can say is probably Navajo copper bracelet with chip inlay.

Paula

What do the designs on the INSIDE of my cuff bracelet mean?

Hi Paula

Do you know what the symbolism is, if any, of the design on the inside of the Bruce Morgan cuff I just purchased?

NBS320-lg-gold-morgan-2 NBS320-lg-gold-morgan-4

I see that it is quite similar to the designs on the inside of the Mary and Ken Bill and the Mary Bill cuffs.  Jeff

NBS327-lg-gold-bill-1 NBS327-lg-gold-bill-4

Hi Jeff,
The artists that use the designs on the inside of the cuffs……..when I’ve commented on the designs, the reply is something like “just to show we care” or “to add something extra”. It is something like when I asked people in the Midwest who decorate the front of their houses with a kind of storybook trim…… when I asked “why?”, they said “for nice” !!
So not so much a symbolism as just an indication of craftsmanship. When the artists stamp the front, which requires quite a bit of force on a bracelet as thick as yours, the inside is against a heavy mandrel. By placing a design stamp there, they are just showing they can pull off two procedures at the same time and all looks nice.
Some Native American designs symbolize things while others are just an artist’s design, not meant to represent anything.
That’s all that I know…………if anyone else has something to add, please submit a comment.
Paula

Navajo Silversmiths 1880s

This is a fascinating read from a Smithsonian writer about very early Navajo Silversmiths.

Navajo Silversmiths 1880-1881