History of Silversmithing

As the oral and written histories of the southwest have surmised, the Navajo silversmithing had its origins somewhere around the mid 19th century.  Blacksmithing was an established vocation among the Spanish settlers of the Rio Grande valley.  Through trade and raiding, the Navajo people acquired iron works for their own domestic use.  Atsidi Sani (Old Smith) was a Navajo who worked with a Mexican blacksmith to learn the trade and began to smith in silver mid 19th century.  

After their return from internment at the Bosque Redondo, Atsidi Sani and others observed the workings of two Spanish silversmiths who were working at the Fort Defiance agency for Henry Dodge.  Later, H.L. Hubble (the trader) brought Spanish smiths to this trading post in Ganado to further refine the silver working knowledge of the Navajo.  

American coinage was first used but upon its becoming illegal to deface in the 1890s, the smiths switched to Spanish/Mexican pesos.  Later in the 1900s sterling silver ingots, sheet and wire material became available.  Atsidi Sani taught his sons the art smithing and they spread the knowledge through their apprentices.  Turquoise, always a valued stone for its beauty and its religious overtones, started to appear in rough settings in the 1890s. 

The arrival of the railroad changed Navajo silverwork dramatically.  Pieces made for Native American clients tended to be heavily fabricated (after all it did represent a person's wealth) while the new "white" tourist wanted something considerably lighter.  The Fred Harvey Company, through it's buyer, Herman Schweizer, had considerable influence over the form of this "railroad jewelry".  

The Zuni learned the art form from the Navajo teachers and their first jewelry mimicked the heavier Navajo work.  Somewhere around the 1930s, the Zuni smiths split from this overall silver look and began to set cluster and inlay stonework over almost the entire surface of their pieces.  Zuni jewelry is now entirely classified by the lapidary skill of the smith. 

The Hopi also smithed in the Navajo style until a group of soldiers returning from World War II, along with sponsorship from the Museum of Northern Arizona, decided to create a new style of silver overlay and use designs from their own pottery and that of the ancestral Anasazi.