History of Native American Silver Casting

Published on September 1, 2014 by Amy

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Native American Turquoise and Silver Necklace
Native American Turquoise and Silver Necklace

Metal jewelry was introduced to the Navajo Indians by Plains tribes. In the mid-1860s, Navajo silversmithing began with the work of Atsidi Sani. The first silver jewelry-makers were Navajos living on the reservation. The practice of forming silver into objects of personal adornment soon spread to the Hopi and Zuni tribes. Casting silver was one of the earliest methods of making conchas, buttons, rings and bracelets.

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Stone Casting

Navajo artisans developed a labor-intensive process for making silver jewelry called casting. Mexican and American silver coins were melted in crucibles with torches or over fires stoked by animal hide bellows. The molten metal was then poured into one-of-a-kind molds carved from volcanic tufa stone or harder sedimentary sandstone. Jewelry items such as bracelets were often cast flat, then worked into a rounded shape. The porous nature of the stone left distinctive pits and imperfections in the finished product.

Mold Making

Cast silver jewelry making began by carving the piece’s design into a piece of soft stone. Tufa stone from compressed volcanic ash was soft and easy to work, but for large casting runs, sandstone molds lasted longer. A stone was cut in half and ground smooth. The jewelry form was then carved into one of the sides. A cone-shaped channel carved into the aligned halves allowed the pouring the molten silver into the form. Side air vents let out hot air.

Casting Process

The two halves of the carved stone were tightly joined together with strips of wet hide or sinew to prevent leakage. Later silversmiths used rubber straps, metal clamps or wrapping wire to bind the stones. Molten silver heated to the proper temperature of around 1,850 degrees was poured into the sprue hole channel. Traditional silversmiths judged the silver’s temperature by its color. After cooling, the piece was removed and finished by buffing, die-tooling and hammering. Turquoise stones were often soldered into the jewelry.

Sand Casting

Master samples created in stone molds were reproduced by the sand casting method. Instead of carving a new mold, the master sample became the basis for an impression made in damp sand contained in a wooden frame. Early silversmiths used desert sand until a mixture of sand, cement and oil took its place. A tufa stone placed over the frame held the sand in place during the casting. New sand molds were made for each piece as the hot silver destroyed the molds.

Source: ehow

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