The forms of North American Indian silverwork grew out of early jewellery traded by explorers and colonists and from exposure to Hispano costume regalia and bridal decorations. The Navajo acquired these early samples by trade and as battle booty. Navajos learned silver working from Hispano smiths and by 1853, the first recognized Navajo silver worker, known as The Old Smith, had emerged. The earliest form of Navajo silverwork was hammered, plain or engraved. By the 1870’s, the artisans had incorporated stamped designs copied from Spanish leather patterns. South-western Indians started blending their own designs which represented historical or spiritual concepts and formed various tools and dies to create a distinctive look all their own. The use of turquoise by the Navajo was initially as currency and for personal adornment at ceremonials. Pueblo Indian legend says that turquoise steals its blue color from the sky. The word turquoise is derived from the French, meaning Turkish stone, apparently because the mineral was first introduced to Western Europe from Persia by way of Turkey. In Spanish the word is turquesa. By 1878, the Navajo combined turquoise with their silverwork establishing a new form of reverence for the stone and an artistry that has proven to be a source of financial stability for their people.
The Navajos taught Zunis the basic artistry of silver craft in the 1870’s. Other Pueblos such as the Hopis and Santo Domingos picked up silver working in the next two decades. The Zuni style of silverwork reflects their historic reputation as skilled lapidarists. The term for Zuni silver craft technique is called inlay. Inlay apparently grew from the prehistoric setting of turquoise, shell and jet in wood, bone and shell. A mosaic of stones is placed in depressions of channels on a silver bezel of crown. Each piece of stone is cut of ground to fit its given position within the design. Pinon pitch was used in the past to fix the stones to the silver, however, today modern materials and stone adhesives are used such as aluminium filler. As further trade continued to develop amongst the native and non-native populations of North America, other materials and stones were being incorporated into the Indian style of jewellery. Often found in combination with turquoise is blood coral, jet or onyx, malachite, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl and other shell.
The Hopis along with other smaller Pueblos learned the art of silverwork from the Hispanos and Navajos by the 1880’s and started developing a style of their own in the late 1930s and 40s. The Hopis are extremely spiritual people, rich in tradition and unique among Native North Americans. They are known to live in the “old ways” more than any other North American tribe. Their style of silverwork is called overlay. The craftsman begins work with two silver sheets of the same shape and size. A design, often adopted from traditional Hopi pottery, is cut in one sheet using a jeweller’s saw. It is then overlaid on the solid piece, giving the design depth. The layers are sweated together by silver solder using a torch. The piece is then satin polished, leaving the design to stand out and an appearance that the jewellery item is made of one solid piece of silver. The Hopis also incorporated the use of turquoise and other traditional stones as solitaires set in bezel cups or collets. The demand for quality Hopi jewellery often exceeds the productivity of a limited number of authentic Hopi artisans resulting in supply shortages at peak market periods.
Northwest Coast silverwork began about 1865. Typically, the use of conventionalized animal designs which were carved into silver formed a distinctive style with obvious variations in design from one tribe to the next. These variations in tribal designs reflect the differences in tradition and spirituality. The animal designs incorporated in N.W. Coast jewellery included traditionally stylized animal figures such as the killer whale, the salmon, the raven, the loon, the eagle, the beaver, the wolf and the mythical thunderbird.