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.

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