Why is copper used for belt loops, pin backs and more in Native American jewelry?

Copper was the first metal discovered by man and has been used for thousands of years by craftsmen around the world for tools, artifacts and jewelry.

Copper was considered sacred by some Native American cultures and it continued to be used extensively even after the introduction of silver, steel, and metal alloys.


Vintage copper bracelet with Native American symbols

Copper was abundant in the Southwest, with Arizona having one of the largest copper deposits in the world. In some areas native copper could be found just laying on the ground without the need to smelt it from ore.

Raw Copper

Raw Copper

Copper’s was and is much less expensive than silver.  Unlike steel and most other metals, copper can be easily shaped without heating.

Soldering or “sweating” is joining two pieces of metal together, using a medium called solder (pronounced “sodder”).  The metals that are being joined might be the same such as copper to copper or sterling silver to sterling silver. That type of soldering is relatively simple for an experienced metal smith.

It is when soldering two different metals together that things can get tricky in terms of the amount of heat necessary and the type of solder required.

Examples of dissimilar metal-to-metal soldering common in Native American jewelry is copper to sterling silver and steel to sterling silver.

Copper Soldered to Sterling Silver

Copper Soldered to Sterling Silver

Copper requires much less heat to solder to sterling silver than it would take to solder steel to sterling silver. Also with copper, there isn’t a specialized solder needed.

That’s why copper is the metal of choice for belt loops on concho belts and is also seen as pin backs, for example, on vintage Native American pins and pin pendants. 

Copper pin soldered to vintage sterling silver pin

Copper pin soldered to vintage sterling silver pin

Sterling silver concho belt with copper belt loops.

Sterling silver concho belt with copper belt loops.


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?

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.


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”.



Vintage Pure Silver Kewa Concha Belt

Most Native American jewelry is made from sterling silver which you can read about here.

Jewelry Silver – Not All Silver is Created Equal

This particular concha belt made in the 1950s by Kewa silversmith Herb Coriz is made from pure silver ingots.


Thus it is stamped .999 rather than the .925 for Sterling Silver.


.999 stamp designates pure silver

However, he made the buckle, which receives the most stress, from sterling silver.


The buckle is stamped Sterling



Which Albert Cleveland Pins and Pendants are solid Sterling?

Hi Paula,

I am confused about which Albert Cleveland thunderbird pins/pendants are actually solid sterling silver.

This one says “Wonderful old style pin made from heavy gauge sterling silver platein the description but yet the pendant is stamped sterling? It was $79.

NPN726-thunderbird-turq-cleveland-1Then you have this one that says “Wonderful old style pin made from heavy gauge sterling silver” in the description. It doesn’t say plate, is also stamped sterling and is also $79.

This is also stamped sterling, does not say plate but was $135

Ive been watching this site for a thunderbird pin or pendant to appear but the descriptions and pricing is confusing. I would like one that is solid sterling not plated. I appreciate your assistance.



HI Lauren,
We don’t sell any plated items. All were and are solid sterling.
Since those pins are all sold, it is a moot point. but……………
….years ago I used to describe the form of the solid sterling silver material that the artists use to cut out and then stamp as “plate” (because they are big plates of sterling silver) but people like you were confused so I quit using the term plate. The silversmiths use solid sterling silver rods, wire, sheet etc etc. So when describing some bracelets we say silver wire.
I was just trying to be colorful and complete in my descriptions but I saw that the word plate (being a solid sheet of sterling silver) can be confused with plated (some other material with a coating of sterling) so I have changed how I describe it to be clear. Those were OLD SOLD listings.
All of the items you asked about were solid sterling silver and sold quite a few years back.
Although Albert Cleveland is currently making most of his items in nickel silver which has no silver in it at all yet is often confusingly called Silver (read about Nickel Silver here) and Copper (read about copper here) we only carry solid sterling silver items.
Oh I see. Thank for the reply. That totally makes sense now. I knew they were sold but I have been keeping an eye out for one to pop up that I liked alot from your site and I just wanted to fully understand what I might be buying.
Thanks again,

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What is my scrap sterling silver jewelry worth?

What determines that jewelry is scrap? It depends on whether something is worthwhile to fix, has sentimental value, whether it is collectible, hallmarked, and other factors. 

Sterling Silver Scrap Native American Jewelry

When you are selling broken or otherwise unsalable sterling silver jewelry, you might be offered scrap price or melt value for the items.

And even if you have undamaged Native American jewelry and you take it to a pawn shop where the pawn broker isn’t interested in or knowledgeable about the value of Native American jewelry, you will likely be offered melt value.

Here’s how you can figure the melt value of your jewelry.

First be sure the items are sterling silver.  If you don’t have an acid test kit yourself, you can take the items to a jeweler to test for you.

Next you’d weigh the items. If there are a lot of stones or materials other than the sterling silver, you could either remove those so you’d get a more accurate sterling silver weight OR you could estimate how much of the weight is stone.  This will vary depending on the piece so you can make your guesstimate and likely the pawn shop owner will make his.

For an example, if a heavy silver bracelet that weighs 125 grams  has stones estimated to be 30% of the weight of the bracelet, then you would have 70% of the weight as sterling silver or 87.5 grams.

125 gram bracelet x .7 = 87.5 grams

Old bracelet used as an example

Sterling Silver Bar – 92.5% Silver
This bar happens to weigh 24.8 Troy Ounces

But sterling silver is only 92.5% silver, so of the 87.5 grams, only 80.9 grams are silver.

87.5 grams of sterling silver x .925 = 80.9 grams of silver

Pure silver bar
Ag is the chemical element symbol for Silver
This bar of silver happens to weigh 100 Troy Ounces

Silver is measured by troy ounces and there are 31.1 grams in a troy ounce. So in 80.9 grams of silver, you would have 2.6 troy ounces of silver.

80.9 grams divided by 31.1 grams per ounce = 2.6 troy ounces of silver

It costs to have sterling silver melted and purified, so if silver is running, say $30 an ounce, you might be offered $30 or less per ounce.

2.6 troy ounces of silver x $30 per troy ounce = $78.

Jewelry Silver – Not All Silver is Created Equal

Native American Silversmithing Styles, and Methods

Sterling Silver Navajo Miniature KettleSterling Silver Navajo BeadsNot All Silver Is Equal

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Pure silver is generally too soft for jewelry making, so it is combined (alloyed) with other metals.

Sterling Silver: Sterling silver and is stamped as “sterling” or “.925” which indicates that it is 92.5 percent pure silver. By law sterling silver must contain no less than 92.5% fine silver with the remainder being any other metal. The other 7.5 percent of the material is comprised of alloys, usually copper (which is what causes sterling silver to tarnish).

Sterling Silver Navajo Beads

Mexican Silver: Mexican silver is usually 95% Silver and 5% Copper. After World War II, for jewelry and objects made in Taxco, Mexico, the Mexican government issued an assay mark guaranteeing the purity to be 925 or higher. This mark is referred to as the “spread eagle” mark. The original mark did look like an eagle, but with modifications over the years, the mark was simplified. The number inside the mark is a workshop or city designation. In 1979, this mark was abandoned in favor of a series of registry letters and numbers assigned to individuals and workshops. Mexican silver is softer so can bends more easily than sterling silver…….which can be either a good or a bad thing.

Argentium® Sterling Silver: A registered and patented alloy of sterling silver, copper and a small amount of the element germanium, developed in 1984. This alloy has excellent tarnish resistance and requires minimal maintainance to remain looking like new. This phenomenon is a result of a transparant layer of germanium oxide thats forms on the surface of the metal and slows the formation of silver sulphide, or tarnish. Tarnish is formed when sulfur reacts with the copper in sterling silver to form silver sulphide. This sulfur can come from the air, perfume, deodorant or skin, among other sources. An occasional wash and rinse and/or wipe with a soft cotton cloth is all that’s needed to keep an object made from Argentium Sterling Silver in pristine condition.

German Silver: It is not actually silver at all! Also called nickel silver, this popular alloy contains copper, zinc and nickel, but has no silver in it. Also sold under manufacturers’ trade names, this material is very hard and generally must be machined.

Nickel Silver: See German Silver above.

Silver Overlay : This can have several meanings. When used in high-end tack accents, belt buckles and so on, silver overlay is made by mechanically bonding Sterling Silver Navajo Beadsa layer of sterling silver over a thicker base metal, usually nickel. This creates a metal with the qualities of sterling at a lower price. Sterling overlay should be thick enough to allow the silversmith to make his engraving cuts in the sterling layer without cutting through to the base metal below. But in Native American jewelry, silver overlay refers to 100% Sterling Silver, both layers are sterling silver. The top layer is cut out with a jeweler’s saw and placed on a solid sterling silver base. The Hopi Indians excel at Sterling Silver overlay.

Silver plate: Silver plating is the least expensive method of utilizing silver in decorative work. To silver plate, a base metal is electrostatically charged, so that a very thin layer of silver adheres to the base. The silver is usually applied as a liquid and is at approximately 7 millionths of an inch thick. Silver plate cannot be hand engraved, but it’s often applied over design cuts made in the base metal.