Southwest Silver Jewelry

About Southwest Silver Jewelry

Southwest silver jewelry enjoys continued popularity in the 21st century. Unlike other forms, southwest silver jewelry remains essentially the same since its development in the 19th century. Southwest silver jewelry retains its timeless appeal.

History of Southwest Silver Jewelry

The practice of personal adornment has long been a feature of the various indigenous cultures of North America. What we would call “jewelry” was a common feature of all American Indian tribes. Some of it was elaborate and showed a high degree of artistic skill. Other pieces could be as simple as a bone strung from plant fiber twine. Besides making a “fashion statement”, jewelry denoted tribal membership, personal accomplishments, and even an individual’s worth.

Southwest silver jewelry was used for this later purpose because Mexican silver coins were the original material used for southwest silver jewelry. The wearing of southwest silver jewelry announced the owner’s worth. Even today, southwest silver jewelry is a common pawn item, though now southwest silver jewelry has more value for its form than its silver content.

Southwest silver jewelry evolved from the metalworking skills of one man, Atsidi Sani, a member of the Dene, or Navaho tribe, who was born in the 1830s. Atsidi Sani, whose name can be translated as “Old Smith”, learned blacksmithing from a Mexican known to the Dene, as Nakai Tsosi (“Thin Mexican”). Metalworking was unknown to the Dene but the demand for metal objects was high. Hoping to use his skill to make metal items to sell to his people, Atsidi Sani began by making iron and steel tools and implements. Gradually, Atsidi Sani responded to orders for jewelry. Southwest silver jewelry can be dated from this man’s work which began in the 1850s.

Originally, Mexican coins were the material of choice for southwest silver jewelry, due to the ductility of the silver alloy used in them. It is thought Atsidi Sani began his career as a southwest silver jewelry maker by embellishing bridles and saddles with silver ornamentation. Over time, Atsidi Sani began accepting work as a jewelry maker, first to members of the Dene nation and later from Hispanics and Anglo-Americans who appreciated his craftsmanship and sense of design in creating the unique style now associated with southwest silver jewelry.

Atsidi Sani’s sons were taught the trade of making southwest silver jewelry and went on to incorporate their own ideas and themes. Over time, the art of jewelry making spread from the Dene to other tribes, such as the Hopi, and southwest silver jewelry making was infused with the motifs, themes, and techniques of many different tribal cultures. Even Anglo-American and Hispanic artists have rendered their own interpretations of traditional southwest silver jewelry and continued this artistic style to the present time.

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