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.