(Repoussage is the art of working the
back of the metal, usually with a hammer or stamp, producing
raised surfaces such as the rounded concha). As the smiths acquired
better tools, they produced more elaborately decorated pieces.
By 1899, the Fred Harvey Company was supplying
sheet metal and pre-cut, polished turquoise to smiths through
the trading posts. The smiths then sold back to Harvey a supply
of cheaply-made souvenir jewelry for tourists.
Soon, the Harvey Company was commissioning
Indian-style machine-made jewelry. Indians may or may not have
been employed for the handwork on these assembly-line pieces.
Other manufacturers followed, producing earrings, bracelets,
rings, brooches, pins, money clips, commemorative spoons and
other trinkets. Collectors of this souvenir jewelry--often called "Harvey
House" or "workshop jewelry"--look for its machined-tooled
precision and uniformity, affectation of an Indian style, and
relative delicate lines. The pieces were generally small, sized
to sell cheaply. Turquoise, when used, was treated or coated
to harden and enhance color. Designs were usually stamped, and
common motifs were thunderbirds, lightning, and bows and arrows.
The differences between authentic and imitation
silverwork are subtle, a condition exacerbated by the tendency
of smiths to copy what is the most successful or profitable,
and to lower their standards for tourists who are often looking
for cheap mementos.
By the early 1900s silver jewelry continued
to change, reflecting significant advances in tools and technology. Repoussé improved
as the smiths learned to temper and harden their tools. Also,
stamp work increased as jewelers acquired the technology and
supplies to make the stamps. This form of working the metal from
the front was quickly adapted as a favored technique to accentuate repoussage or
to stand alone.
One example of the evolving aesthetic, or the
way the finished silver should look, is the degree of polish
on the piece. Currently, silversmiths prefer a high polish, whereas
silversmiths of 50 or 100 years past lacked the electric buffing
wheel. The older fashion left some areas tarnished, or darkened,
to enhance details.
Perhaps the best advice for prospective collectors
is always to buy from reputable dealers and to ask plenty of
questions about the materials and techniques used, and about
the jeweler. Today, almost all silver is signed or marked, or
the maker is identifiable. Look for the mark, and keep in mind
that in New Mexico, it is illegal to proffer non-Indian made
jewelry as Indian-made. A reputable dealer should be able to
provide proof of authenticity in writing. If there is any hesitation
or avoidance, find another dealer.
Many buyers think they should shun treated
turquoise. However, much turquoise used today is treated in some
way to strengthen it. In its untreated state, the stone is porous,
often mottled, and marked with imperfections or inclusions. There
are various types of treatments, including coating, dyeing, infusing
with hardening agents, and even reconstituting ground turquoise.
Ask the seller if, and how, the turquoise is treated. Obviously,
collectors will weigh the advantages of different types of treatments.
Finally, collecting Indian silver should always
be enjoyable. It is still a very affordable art, and collectors
enjoy a wide range of styles and designs. Learning about the
history, techniques, materials and the makers offers insights
into cultures that are often trivialized by our mass society.
A fine, well-made piece of silver has universal appeal; it wears
well anywhere, anytime and with almost any style of dress.
what you love and wear it often.