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

The Three Stone Navajo Bracelet

One very traditional Navajo bracelet layout is the three stone bracelet.

#8 Turquoise 3 Stone Shadowbox bracelet by Navajo Wilbur Muskett

This layout is usually used when there are wonderful stones to showcase.

Vintage 3 Stone Bracelet with chisel mark E

The Three Stone layout works best if the stones match.

Vintage unsigned Royston Turquoise 3 Stone bracelet

Often the central stone is larger and the two sides stones are smaller.

Vintage unsigned 3 Stone bracelet

Sometimes the central stone is smaller and the two side stones are larger.

Vintage unsigned 3 stone bracelet

 

It is equally suitable to use the layout on a wire bracelet or a cuff.

Read about wire bracelets here – Wire Bracelets

Vintage unsigned 3 stone Bisbee turquoise bracelet on heavy 3 wire frame

 

Three stone White Buffalo Stone cuff bracelet by Joe Piaso

Read about White Buffalo Stone.

 

Vintage 3 stone bracelet with partial hallmark of P. This is a cross between a wire and a cuff bracelet. There is a heavy 4 wire framework and a solid sterling faceplate under the stones.Paula

Book Look: Southwestern Indian Rings by Paula A. Baxter

Like Paula Baxter states in her Dedication, I never feel “fully dressed without wearing at least one Navajo or Pueblo ring.”

In my case, sometimes I just have to wear more !  Being a Native American ring aficionado, I found this book an interesting reference.

In over 350 color photographs (taken by her husband Barry Katzen), Paula shows historic and contemporary rings made by Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Santo Domingo artists and more.  The photos here in my article are not from Paula Baxter’s book – they are photos of my personal rings and some from the store where I work.

Unmarked vintage turquoise – likely Navajo

 

 

 

 

Coral by Rose Castillo Draper, Navajo

 

 

Larry Pooyouma, Hopi

Sidney Sekakuku Jr. – Hopi

Richard and Geneva Terrazas, Zuni

Morris and Sadie Laahte, Zuni

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contents of the Book

The Design and Appeal of Southwestern Indian Rings

Materials and Methods of Ring Construction

Historical Rings: Pre-Contact to 1930

Vintage Rings, 1930-1979: The Age of Experimentation

Master Innovator

Artistic Adornment: 1980 to Present

It is in the Master Innovator section that she shows and discusses work by Dan Simplicio, Fred Peshlakai, Lee Yazzie, Charles Loloma, Jesse Monongya, Kenneth Begay and others.

Contemporary artists include Sonwai and Arland Ben to mention just a few.

Besides displaying rings in the customary silver and turquoise, there are a number of rings showing other materials including variscite, pink coral, sugilite, petrified wood, ironwood, fossilized ivory, opal, jade, azurite, fire agate as well as many other agates, jasper, tortoise shell and more.

Jasper

White Buffalo Stone by Freddy Charley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother of Pearl by Rose Castillo Draper, Navajo

Lapis by Navajo Bennie Ration

 

Natural Royston Turquoise by Navajo Walter Vandever

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

What does INGOT mean in relation to Native American jewelry?

Early Native American jewelry (pre-1930’s) was usually hand forged from hand-made, hand-poured 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.

Silver is hammered while it is still hot because it’s much softer than when it’s cold. It stretches and spreads faster when hot. It needs to be reheated after only a few hammer blows because if hammered too long it will crack.  It takes a lot of experience to hammer an ingot without it cracking. If it is not hammered on all sides before reheating for the next round, it will crack……..which means back to square one, remelting and making another ingot !!

Jewelry that was hand forged and hand hammered is now rare, collectible and expensive because most modern jewelry is no longer hand-hammered from ingots except by master smiths preserving the tradition. A large amount of contemporary Native American jewelry 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 is the impression of tool marks.

BP262-BC-ingot-turq-638-4

The early bracelet below was made from an ingot – the surface wrinkling is a telltale sign. Although the wrinkling shows that this bracelet was made from an ingot, had the smith sanded or filed through the wrinkles and made the surface smooth, it would no longer show any signs of being made from an ingot, but it still would be ingot jewelry.

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

Thanks to Mike Schmaltz for his help with this information.

Paula

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

Silver is 99.9% pure elemental silver.
Sterling Silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper.

The stamp .925 indicates that at item is 925 parts silver out of 1000 parts, the remaining 75 parts are usually copper but can be other metals.

Read more about silver here Not All Silver is Created Equal

What is Coin Silver?

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In the US, the coin silver standard was established in the 1820s to be 90% silver and 10% copper and all dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars until the end of 1964 were made of those metals.

12-19-11-silver-dimes

Coin Silver, when used in association with vintage Native American jewelry, is a term used to refer to the alloy that resulted when pre-1965 US silver coins were melted down to reuse in jewelry making. Coin silver made from US coins has less silver than sterling silver (90% compared to 92.5% in sterling silver) but that doesn’t necessarily make coin silver jewelry less desirable. In fact, because coin silver jewelry is usually older and hand hammered, it might be more valuable than if it were made of sterling silver.

Vintage Mexican coins often had a silver content above that of US coins, therefore was softer and easier to hand hammer and preferred by some old-time silversmiths. Some Mexican coin silver jewelry will test as high as sterling silver.

Early Native American craftsmen made jewelry directly from the coins, heating the coins in a fire pit or forge and hammering them into shape. Items like this often have some faint residual impressions from the coin design remaining.

They also made ingots by melting coins and pouring the liquid metal into molds to form ingots (blocks or bars). They then would hand forge, or hammer, an ingot into the shape of a bracelet or other item. It should be noted that some vintage ingots are “blends”, that is mostly Mexican coins with a few US coins thrown in OR mostly sterling silver with a few US coins thrown in or any variation thereof. That’s why the exact silver content will vary widely in the vintage jewelry.

This 1930’s bracelet was hand forged and tests at least as high as sterling silver, so is one of those “blends”.

 

Paula