Friday, July 6, 2012

It's All About the Rocks

Don't get me wrong here—the sterling work is where the real artistry comes in. But closer examination of Native American works show that the stone was the inspiration for the piece, and the sterling work is often designed around it. This is the case when a stone 'speaks' to the artisan.

Certain mines produce stones that are soft, yet stable, and are easily carved to fit into a particular style of jewelry. Zuni Petit Point and Needle Point pieces are almost exclusively done using Sleeping Beauty mine stones for this reason. Their sky blue color and absence of matrix make for some pretty amazing displays.

Many mines produced for a short period and some rendered stones that are easily identified, but there are so many mines that have been in operation for decades, the different turquoise veins that are tapped will often have stones of drastically varying characteristics. This can make stone identification difficult as one mine will produce stones very similar to another.

There are a few exceptions; turquoise from the Lander Blue mine, the #8 mine, the Bisbee mine and a few others, have an unmistakable matrix and color as the veins of the mine continually produce turquoise of the same look and quality. The desire for this type of stone is high, with Lander Blue being the most expensive turquoise on the market due to the low production rate of the mine and the unusual matrix and color of the stones. As you might guess, we don't find a lot of Lander pieces, but when we do, they sell very quickly.

Turquoise is such a wonderful and time honored offering from the earth, its importance in Native American works is highly significant, and when a piece is true to the stone, it increases its value considerably. We see a lot of work and it's always disappointing to see sterling work that was obviously done with great care, only to have an inferior stone slapped into it. But turquoise prices, especially for high-grade stones, have proven prohibitive to artisan's that produce a lot of work. It's the pieces that are done by artisans with little concern for mass production that invariably incorporate quality stones. These are the pieces we present on the website.

Stone selection is a major factor in the pieces we offer, and turquoise that has been treated / stabilized is shied away from—its color and matrix are no longer natural and it gives the stones a plastic appearance. The stabilization process became popular in the 1950s as a way to offer more stones to the jewelry manufacturing industry—the process was used on inferior grade materials that were prone to breaking, and its still being done today, with the stones being incorporated into mass produced jewelry.

We do the best we can when identifying natural turquoise stones, and will not give a definitive identification unless we're certain of their origin, which is often the case. There are just too many variations produced by a single source to say with absolute certainty in some instances, and misleading our buyers is simply not an option. The pieces we offer incorporate superior stones, many being gem quality, from high-grade sources. There's just no reason to do it any other way.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Wonder of Native American Sterling Cast Work

One of the big reasons I chose Native American Jewelry studies as my livelihood is the vast amount of information out there. A lot is easily accessible but there are hidden pockets that reveal a much deeper understanding of the art form than is usually offered. My best source has been the collectors and traders I interface with; people that have a long association with the art form.

I handle so many pieces I have time to closely examine the techniques used and have formed some opinions around certain aspects. One area that I've found to be particularly interesting is Tufa cast work, which is commonly referred to as Sandcast. This was one of the first techniques used by Native Americans to create jewelry for everyday adornment, ceremonial applications and as gifts for fellow tribe members.

The pieces are often heavy and feature bold designs. Earlier pieces are regularly rough in nature with the design elements being left un-manicured which gives them a slightly primitive look (I like that a lot!). With the advent of mass production and precision measurement tools, a lot of the personality has been removed from the work. Casts for pieces made prior to this had to be “eyeballed” as far as the shapes and thicknesses of the item were concerned. A cast would be made and utilized until it's integrity waned and a new cast was required if the design was to be duplicated. The great thing is, the casts were seldom re-created once they were exhausted, and if they were, the duplicate cast was different than the original rendering each casting as a unique, individual design.

The designs are almost always symmetrical with matching elements that when eyeballed didn't quite end up the same as their sister elements. These older pieces are the ones I strive to acquire—their handcrafted nature is endearing and speaks to the artisan following edicts of early jewelry making in which they let the Gods guide them through all aspects.

One such piece I acquired many years ago is a massive bracelet which was culled from the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas. It's been dated to between 1900 and 1920 and is a stellar example of early Navajo cast work featuring many of the aforementioned attributes.

Much of what I've mentioned here has taken a while for me to absorb. With each new acquisition of a cast sterling piece of considerable age, I learn more about this important technique, it's cultural origins and it's handcrafted charm.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Coveted and Hard to Come By: The Native American Hair Piece

Native American's are known for their daily adornments, most, if not all, are made by fellow tribe members and given as gifts during certain ceremonies or celebrations. During celebratory activities adornments are ramped up a few levels and they wear their best and most treasured pieces, often stacking them one on the other. Many pieces have cultural significance and are sometimes directly related to the ceremony taking place, like this Holly Bracelet.

Everyday adornments are kept fairly simple with the hair piece being an ever present decoration. These pieces are functional art and are often passed down from generation to generation.

The Navajo hair piece pictured above is from the 1930s or previous, beautifully crafted, simple in design and traditionally constructed from a single piece os sterling.

This Rain Cloud design is also very old, and it's design speaks to Native American culture, their connection to the Earth and the importance of the Gods' willingness to provide them with much needed moisture. Again, this piece is artfully cut from a single sterling sheet.

This elongated Navajo piece is from the 1940s and incorporates an exaggerated twist in the pick elements and beautifully applied traditional stamping, with the featured stamps being done with a chisel. The tines are seperate from the headpiece and are beautifully soldered into place.

This very old Navajo piece is also elongated and has considerable age indications. The odd shaped stone is beautifully set and the hand stamping varies dramatically. The tines are seperate on this one as well, and in keeping with the primitive, early nature they're not as cleanly attached as the previous piece as the proper tools were not available at the time of it's construction

An important technique used in older Native American jewelry construction is “eyeballing” the stamp placement, the initial cut of the sterling with which the piece is to be made and stone positioning. This is one of my favorite attributes of handling Vintage and Old Pawn pieces and can easily be compared to musical improvisation.

Having these pieces in our collection is a real feather in our cap as they seldom leave the family of origin, and when they do, they more than likely remain within the tribe, as their personal nature is highly regarded. Most of these pieces were made specifically for a loved one or relative while considering their personal style or positioning within the tribal hierarchy.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

And we have a Winner!

One of the first techniques used by Native Americans in jewelry making was the use of Tufa Casting, or as it's more commonly referred to, Sandcast. Very early on, from the mid 1800s, wet, stiff sand was artfully shaped and molten metal, usually sterling silver, was poured into the mold. This renders a unique look and the result is often pretty weighty. The cast sterling, once removed from the mold, had to be filed smooth and delicately shaped by the artisan. The molds deteriorated after each use and the castings change slightly each time. If the artisan needed several cast elements for something like this Concho Belt, a mold would often have to be re-created thus rendering slightly different characteristics as each new mold was made. There were no precision measurement tools available and casting work was all done by “eyeballing” the shape of the mold.

This 1880 to 1900 Concho Belt pre-dates what Native American jewelry aficionados refer to as “Phase One”; a specified time period when the art form first came to fruition. The craftsmanship is outstanding—the unknown artisan took this belt very seriously and it shows. That the leather belt is original is a miracle in itself. The belt was used for a period and acquired by a serious collector who stored it for close to a century and it's condition is beyond reproach.

I've seen thousands of Concho Belts and owned several, but this is by far the best representation of Navajo casting work I've had the pleasure to even see much less be able to acquire.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sky and Earth

by Scott Anderson: Native Treasures Online - East Coast Operative

I've never written a blog before so I'm quite surprised to find myself writing my first one far from home and far from the places traditionally associated with my subject today, that being the mineral phenomenon known as Turquoise.

I am not a geologist, nor an artist, nor a theologian or an economist, and I therefore concede that there are deeper writings on everything I'll discuss here today. I stand at this nexus radiating from the stone as an admirer and a tourist of sorts in the realms of these experts.

My first exposure to this stone was in my grade school years when a kid from up the street showed me a stone he had obtained on a trip to some exotic location. Turkoyse was how he said it, and it was valuable. It immediately impressed my young mind and I accepted it's value on his say-so alone. That impression sat many years before I was again exposed to the stone.

When I moved to Albuquerque at the age of seventeen there were few jobs for which I was qualified and one of the possibilities was working for an "Indian Jewelry" shop. As it turned out, I never did go to work for such a place, but many of my acquaintances took their turn working in these sweatshops grinding heishi for the quick sell to tourists that didn't know any better. To me, the whole subject of turquoise was decidedly utilitarian. The stuff seemed to be everywhere and it's enthusiasts merely a class of prey for the local merchants.

Fast forward through the years--about thirty. These experiences have faded deep into the realm of irrelevance now. There was the occasional reminder of the art form employing turquoise and silver as my life took me far from New Mexico, but somehow the place and the people had made me one of their own. I remember driving to my job at the Ambrosia Lakes mines outside of Grants, New Mexico. I looked off to the side of the road and saw the smooth rolling brown hills and was overcome with something strange and warm. These hills, this land, were now my mother. I was born from them and in them I belonged as on my Mother's arm. Wherever life might take me, I would never forget this place and this time.

From Albuquerque one can see in the distance a beautiful mountain. You have to be on a high place to see it off to the west. It's called by the white man, Mount Taylor. This is a holy place. It was in the foothills of this place that I saw my Mother Earth. There is no arbiter of justice, there is only what is part of us and what is not. This land and I are of a piece. Maybe it's a reach to claim more than that, but the particular stone we call Turquoise is of this land too. In fact it is found in globally diverse places, but here in the New World, it is closely associated with the Southwestern United States.

All this variety has led to a hope that we might classify the stones and indeed we do, but the predominant classification is by mines from which a particular stone was quarried, hence mysterious names such as The #8 Mine or Carrico Lake, Cerrillos or Pilot Mountain. To anyone seeking to know more about this beautiful stone it can all seem quite daunting and indeed to compound the problem there is plenty of misrepresentation around these stones. Its really not a matter of malicious intent either, it is mostly just that there is really no solid science to the whole thing. Any particular quarry or mine will produce a variety of gem-quality pieces depending on where in the vein they were found. And yet, each mine can produce stones unaffectionately referred to as crap. Strangely or not, these stones never seem to receive the appellation of place like that afforded the best wines. Which brings us to yet another point and the comparison with wines is inescapable on this point. A cheap wine is made of grapes sourced from the cheapest supplier and they are likely to be a mixture of grapes from moderately diverse locations. Likewise turquoise of poor quality can be ground into a powder and bound with epoxy resins to produce a uniform composite which will take a polish and can be easily cut to size. This is referred to simply as "block" by those in the trade. This is not gem-quality stone and, unfortunately finds it's way into a lot of cheap jewelry.

So having danced around this subject maybe a bit more than necessary, we're still wondering what it is that gives a stone value. There's beauty, but how can one measure that? There's rarity, but that is a difficult thing to quantify when the stones themselves vary so much within even a single mine. There are physical qualities such as hardness and the ability to take a polish. These are a better bet at least on the quantitative front and indeed they really do matter probably more than anything else, except, where the stone came from. There are particular qualifiers to this though and that's the particular mine from which the stone was quarried. Some mines are active today, some had a brief spurt of glory in recent times and are now lost forever under hundreds of feet of quarry tailings, while yet others were mined in prehistoric as well as historic times. One can do the calculations at home as well as can I; rarity equals value, historicity equals value, beauty equals value, yet in the end, most of what determines value is subjective at best and unmeasurable except through the most tortured of extensions. What is one to do about all this?

Well, the answer is really one for each to answer for oneself. My own attraction to Turquoise is a complex thing, but it always holds a sense of place for me. Having no true homeland myself, it reminds me of the place that claimed me so many years ago. I see the weathered rocks and the weathered faces of the natives who work the stone, the silver, and the leather into reflections of this land. But even this association is by personal experience as much as objective fact. Many wonderful stones of Persian, Tibetan, and even Chinese origin have found their way into finely crafted pieces of Southwestern Native American Jewelry. The turquoise stone is a color in the artist's palette as much anything, yet anyone who has spent any time in the American Southwest can see those skies set against the tones of the desert, and know why this stone is such an integral part of it's people's craft.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

JW Edgar--The Turquoise King of the Southwest

We've had an opportunity to acquire some superior pieces from the J.W. Edgar estate here in Albuquerque. Edgar was referred to as “The Turquoise King of the Southwest” during his 100 years, and on his passing his family has slowly started to offer pieces from his private collection. At one time Edgar owned close to 11 thousand acres of turquoise claims in Nevada, several of them producing much sought after, high grade stones. He sold much of what his mines produced to Indian Trading Posts throughout the Southwest with much of it ending up on the Native American pueblos of New Mexico.

Legendary silversmiths were regularly employed by Edgar to incorporate his best stones into special, one-of-a-kind pieces, many of which Edgar kept for himself, with many more being offered to important collectors, dignitaries and pop culture icons. Often pieces would return to Edgar in trade when someone wanted to either upgrade or have something designed especially for them. He was the “go-to guy” when you wanted the best available. RG Armstrong had this chip inlay watch bracelet custom made by one of Edgar's silversmiths, and later traded it for something else. With Armstrong's extensive stage, film and television presence, starting in the late 1930s and lasting beyond 2000, this is not only a highly desirable work of Native American art, but an important Hollywood collectable.

The acquisition of two, Old Navajo Pawn Bow Guards / Ketohs has been a real feather in our cap as far as adding to our museum worthy offerings. The stones and craftsmanship are completely "over the top" on both of them and we're very excited to add them to the Native Treasures collection. You can get a good look at them in the video, they're located in the Featured Pieces category on the website and include some extensive provenance in their descriptions.

As negotiations continue we're confident that additional pieces from this impressive estate will become available. We'll keep you posted!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's all about the ART

In the '70s the market price of silver went through the roof, got close to $50 an ounce and slowly worked it's way back down to $12. The increase happened quickly but the decline took a while. The same thing is happening now. Silver is nearing $50 after being stable at around $17 for decades, dropping to $12 occasionally. This has seen jewelry prices increase as it's costing more to produce. The price is going to peak here pretty quickly, and with the economy currently being what it is, I foresee it tanking in the very near future.

Everybody is up in arms about how expensive silver has become, and I'm real sorry, but I don't get it. I understand that the contemporary trinket market depends heavily on the availability of silver, but trinkets are just that—quickly thrown together, mass produced identical pieces aimed at a quick sale to the general public. The art aspect is not a consideration, or if it is, it's minimal at best.

The only reason I even have knowledge of silver prices sky-rocketing is that my suppliers are beginning to consider it when offering me goods. They complain about it all the time, make sure they tell me all about it as an excuse to raise their prices.

I ignore it. Always have. I'm not dealing in pieces of metal, I procure art, and the cost of materials to produce it is completely immaterial. The end product, when created by artisans that “care” far transcends the cost of materials.

Bulk can be a consideration when acquiring, as heavier pieces are often desirable. Artisan's worth their salt use heavy gauge materials to insure their creations will be sturdy, and last a few lifetimes. Considerable weight can increase the value of a piece, but it has little to do with the market price of shiny metal.

I just acquired this exquisite Old Pawn Navajo Turquoise bracelet. It's one of, if not the, most beautifully crafted carinated-band-shank bracelet I've ever seen. It weighs 108 grams, or 3.6 Troy ounces. That puts it's silver scrap value at around $145. Anyone that would sell this masterpiece for scrap needs their head examined.

I wonder how much the paint cost when Davinci did the Mona Lisa? Not real sure that's a consideration when establishing it's value.