Navajo Silver: Estate and Old Pawn Indian Silver and Turquoise Jewelry

An Essay on Navajo Silver

The story of the Navajo cannot be told without mention of the silver and turquoise jewelry which they make.

The beginning is a little vague, but it is most widely accepted that simple copper and brass bracelets – and possibly coin silver bracelets – seen in early photographs of certain headmen of the Navajo during their incarceration at the Bosque Redondo between 1864 and 1870 can pin the beginnings of Navajo jewelry sometime at this period, or slightly before. It has been suggested that some Navajo blacksmiths may have learned the jewelry making craft by watching Mexican smiths sometime during this period, as there was heavy interaction, including slave raids, between the two peoples.

During the early reservation period, 1870-1890, there were a few noted Navajo silversmiths including Ugly Blacksmith, Thin Silversmith, Grey Mustache, and Old Silversmith. These smiths were located near the first railroad towns (Thoreau, Gallup, Houck) or somewhat close to them (Ganado / Window Rock). During this earliest period, the smiths used the simplest of tools, primarily hammer, crude anvil, punch and file. This early heavy jewelry produced were mostly prized family possessions, and became a display of status which became fashionable to wear at ceremonials and important gatherings. As other Navajo began to desire obtaining jewelry, they either had to barter with the jeweler, or try to make some themselves. Consequently, silver jewelry became entrenched within the Navajo culture. Becoming a jeweler itself was a position of power within one’s community.

Beginning in 1880 and most certainly by the mid 1890s, the railroad began influencing all things surrounding the Navajo silversmith. Small pieces of railroad track were fashioned into anvils, and scrap iron pieces were made into stamps and dyes. Jewelry was traded more commonly, and the Navajo silversmiths working near the railroad had an advantage over those in the more remote regions of the vast Navajo territory, as the increased trade and availability of materials helped these “railroad” Navajo smiths to produce more work, more efficiently. Anvils were raised off the floor, and a trend towards lighterweight silver works with thinner, pre-cut, polished turquoise began.

The earliest pieces with turquoise (circa 1880) are usually made of very heavy ingot silver, with thick, unpolished stone settings and simple tooling. However, due to railroad influence, an uneven development of Navajo jewelry occurred. For example, 1910-era jewelry produced in the remote regions can be similar to the 1880 jewelry of the “railroad” smiths. Additionally, examples from a beginning smith in 1910, which are generally cruder than works from an experienced smith, may be misidentified as an older example.

The early reservation period (1870-1890) saw the development and steady growth of jewelry making, but by 1910, an entire industry centered on the Anglo tourist had developed. To understand how this occurred, we have to look at the Fred Harvey Company.

Beginning in 1875 with the opening of the restaurants near Wallace, Kansas and Hugo, Colorado, Fred Harvey envisioned a vast chain of restaurants catering to the railroad tourist. Although these two initial restaurants closed after a short period, and his initial backer, the Burlington Railroad, backed away from his idea, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad decided to back Harvey with several restaurant locations in Florence, Kansas in 1878. Soon, thereafter, the “Harvey House” chain began and spread westward, eventually into Navajo territory. It was here, that Harvey Company entrepreneur, Hermann Schweizer, came up with a business model of consigning silver and turquoise through trading posts (often times located within the Harvey Houses) to the Navajo, who would then make the jewelry and sell it back to the trading post. The sale back both covered the cost of the initial silver and turquoise as well as giving a small profit to the maker. This consignment of materials out expanded on the ‘Pawn” system which was already established by the original trading posts, and gave the Harvey Company control over production, weight of silver and quality shape, cut and color of stones used.

The popularity of this jewelry was astounding, and to meet the demand more and more silversmiths were hired. “Bench Jewelry” is a term used when describing the style of jewelry that was made by smiths making Harvey style jewelry, as the many smiths often worked together on long benches and tables, all producing similar style work. Sometimes the jewelry production steps would be broken down, whereas one would cut the silver, another would stamp the designs, another set the stones and do finish work. Typically, this jewelry was of lower weight, more quickly made, and had lots of Indian symbols stamped into the silver. Today, there is a revival of interest in this jewelry and is known generically as “Fred Harvey Jewelry” and this style continued well into the 1950s. There were some quality differences from bench to bench, and today’s collectors look for the heavier, more carefully produced examples, but, the highest values are placed on the jewelry that was in the style previous to “the Harvey Style”, e.g. heavier, simpler in design and made for personal adornment and use.

As popular as it was around the railroad and tourist areas, though, the Navajo themselves (and especially those off the rail such as in the northwestern part of the reservation) didn’t wear the lightweight jewelry. They preferred the old style heavy work. To understand why, we have to explore “Old Pawn.”

Old Pawn

A magical term in the Indian art world, “old pawn” is usually misapplied when spoken out of ignorance of the cultural context to which is was originally assigned. Early Trading Post Traders relied on their Navajo neighbors to be their best customers, as tools, rope, trade blankets, food, and general supplies were the primary products which the trader sold. Building a good customer base among the Navajo required the trader to become a trusted member of the community, and to do so, he often wore many hats. Settling disputes, loaning materials and money, providing shelter for Navajos traveling from distance, and even taking care of the body of a deceased Navajo whom no one claimed or wanted to deal with, were just some of the trader’s responsibilities.

The pawning system was established and regulated under the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), and provided that the trader could loan money on an item for 1 year during which time the owner could retrive it for the loan amount plus 10%. The regulations also required the trader to tell the owner when the year was coming due, and, if the item was not reclaimed, the item went to dead pawn status, afterwhich the trader than could sell the item to anyone. Nonetheless, it was usually in the traders best interest, not to sell items that went into dead pawn as to not offend the owner – as this would then hurt the trader’s reputation in the community. In fact, most early pawn was never intended to “go dead and unclaimed,” particularly as the loan was often for only a fraction of the item’s value. For the Navajo, the items were placed in pawn for multiple reasons. Not only would you receive some quick cash or goods, but secondly, the items were pawned for safe-keeping in the owner’s interest. This was a practical solution to the Navajo owner, who often moved with his sheep herd, and had few options as to where to hold valuables. In addition to being relatively safe, the jewelry was usually on display with its pawn ticket, and all the other Navajo patrons of the post could see the items, thereby raising the status of the owner.

Material wealth for the Navajo had traditionally been measured in animals and in blankets. The Navajo knew little of banks, and paper money had no value to them. When a wealthy Navajo (one with many sheep and goats) saw that the Trader placed value on the silver jewelry, and that credit could be obtained with it, he began to commission local smiths usually paying in sheep or goats. The trader, preferring jewelry over animals, was more familiar with silver, and happy for a more versatile trade item; the smith was happy to increase his flocks, and the heavy weighted jewelry brought prestige to the owner and better credit from the trader. As the pawning system became established, jewelry took center stage as the item of choice to work with.

To circle back to the Fred Harvey jewelry, between 1910 and 1930, few traders that catered only to the Navajo would even put it in their cases as the Navajo themselves, didn’t care for it. Consequently, most of it was made and sold on or near the railroad which skirted the southern part of the reservation.

Another turning point in the story of jewelry occurred with the appearance of the automobile on the reservation in the 1930s. The northern part, still heavy with old pawn, became the center of focus for museums and collectors to try to build collections of “old pawn” before it disappeared, as did all the old ways. Additionally, the traders, now seeing new tourists for the first time saw their dead pawn depleting, and, to replace stock, started buying some of the Harvey Style jewelry. This was a win-win for the trader, as a Harvey piece sold to a tourist brought in money to the post, yet he was able to keep in favor with his local Navajo by not selling the dead pawn yet to be claimed. Lastly, the Navajo, who began seeing the lighter weight, shiny Harvey jewelry, began to accept it more and more, although the heavy “Old Pawn” was still the prize.

By Matt Wood

Pawn Loans: How to Get Quick Cash Using Your Jewelry As Collateral

Have you ever been tight on cash and thought of pawning your jewelry? This can be a really tough personal decision to make. Keep your valuables or pay the bills. There actually is a win-win situation where you get your cash and keep your jewelry. With a jewelry loan you get your cash and don’t need to sell your cherished personal items. Reputable jewelers often have a license to provide loans based on the value of your jewelry. These jewelers can offer you a cash loan using your valuables are as collateral for up to 120 day terms. If you need fast cash now and have high-end jewelry such as a branded watch or other high-end piece of jewelry this type of loan can work for you. The jewelry often needs to be of significant value for the jeweler to provide you a loan.

Here in Florida the law allows pawnshops up to charge 25% interest per month. This is a very high amount and you should not pay this. Make sure you find a reputable jeweler that will charge you between 5 and 20%. The amount depends on the value of the jewelry. In general, the more cash you are requesting, the higher your jewelry is valued, the lower the percentage rate you should be charged. For example, a $50,000 diamond bracelet should be charged a much lower percentage vs $5,000 earrings.

Loans are based on the appraised “loan value” of your collateral and its current condition and our ability to sell the item. The amount of the loan offered is based on the wholesale, resale/secondhand value of the item, not the new retail price. So, be prepared to accept an offer on a lower price vs retail.

Make sure to ask where the jewelry is being stored and if it is insured. The jewelry being loaned should be secured and insured being stored in a safe deposit box. There are others that offer this service but can often be un-knowledgeable pawn shops and brokers in usually less than desirable settings and neighborhoods. They may not be taking the utmost care of your valuables.

You should ask for a detailed appraisal report with pictures of your loaned valuables. It’s obviously essential that you know the items are properly described and you receive the exact same items back upon your return and pickup.

Keep in mind the jewelers will not loan on just any jewelry. Don’t be offended if you are turned down or the jewelry can’t help. They are taking a risk in giving you cash for your jewelry and will often only take high-end valuables.

Following these basic rules in jewelry pawn loans can provide you with a positive experience. You’ll get the cash you need quickly at a rate that is fair. Remember to always work with reputable jewelers that have been in business for many years. To ensure that positive experience you don’t want to loan your valuables to just any pawn dealer or broker.