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.
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.
Enter 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 !
The hinged fasteners are machine made of plated steel or stainless steel.
The design portion or button cover top is usually made of sterling silver. They can be Native American hand-made or commercially machine made.
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.
BOOK EXCERPTS SHOWING HOW BUTTONS ARE MADE