Silver Marks Tell Stories in Navajo Jewelry
Historically, various Native American tribes employed stylized pictures or pictographs to communicate. Native crafts and the advent of jewelry-making allowed Navajo silver marks to preserve some of the traditional symbols.
Often similar, symbols employed by artists of different tribes help convey meanings in the pieces, and can be used to identify older pieces. Silver hallmarks, which are equivalent to an artist’s signature, are different.
Navajo Silver Marks are Unique to the Design
Navajo silver marks can be symbolic, but sometimes they are simple embellishments on the metal, used purely for design. Traditional Navajo silver marks may include lines representing lightning, water, rain and clouds, or such concepts as peace, friendship, wisdom and beauty. Navajo silver marks also denote the attributes of animals: Strength of a bear; Speed of a deer; Fidelity of a dog.
Other Navajo silver marks point to natural elements or attest to the reverence paid to nature, or testify to the times; such as symbols for war or for peace. However, many designs are just that, simple embellishment. The basis for the Navajo silver marks may be lost in history, or may have been borrowed or adapted from other cultures.
Navajo Silver Marks Point to Origin
Navajo-made silver jewelry is traditionally heavier and has more design layering than pieces produced by artists from other tribes. Pieces tend to be ornate and bold, as is the traditional stonework, large and irregular. Navajo silver marks, likewise, are heavy and ornate. Natural shapes and applied motifs point to a Navajo artist, rather than Zuni or Hopi, which is more precise and regular.
Navajo artists, who employ more embellishment on the face of a piece of jewelry, will generally sign their work on the back with simple initials. Especially with Old Pawn, although it may be impossible to identify Navajo silver marks as positive proof of origin, simple initial signing suggests Navajo work.
Artists Interpret Navajo Silver Marks
Navajo silver marks include symbols that have been adapted over time, and modern Navajo silver marks might convey different messages from their historical predecessors. Today’s artists utilize new tools in their work, and are influenced by technology. Use of Navajo silver marks can be based on tradition or on artistic preference, or can be abandoned completely.
Common embellishment techniques are being altered, as young artists find new ways to express their art and to employ Navajo silver marks.