Native American-made jewelry from the southwestern United States is in a class of its own. Pieces are crafted by hand and hand stamped with treasured tools; the artists creating it have, in the majority of cases, learned the art of silversmithing from their parents or grandparents. Assorted artists from different tribes express distinct styles in their jewelry, creating personally inspired, one-of-a-kind pieces which enjoy worldwide popularity. A particular niche in silversmithing we find especially compelling is known as tufa casting.
Southwestern tribes had been using their lapidary skills well before the pervasive Spanish introduced them to silversmithing in the 16th century. The Navajo were the first people to cast silver in the 1870s, with the skill quickly spreading to the Zuni and Hopi in the following years. Many silversmiths utilized sand casting and continue the practice today, creating spectacular pieces of jewelry. Others preferred tufa casting while creating their work. The processes of utilizing sand or tufa casting are very similar, but differ in the types of materials used.
Tufa is found all over the world, including the Navajo reservation in the southwestern United States. It is a porous rock, formed from compressed volcanic ash which is soft enough to carve designs in. The end result is a mold which holds molten silver. Silversmiths create the mold of a bracelet, ring, or pendant in one side of the stone, also carving vent holes and a sprue hole in which to pour the liquified sterling silver. Gravity takes over and pulls the silver into the design elements carved by the artist. Once the silver has cooled and solidified, the mold is opened and an exceptional piece is ready for refinements.
When the cast piece of silver has been released from the mold, the silversmith will clarify it: this involves sanding, cleaning, gemstone placement, and buffing. In the case of a bracelet, the artist now has a flat piece of metal which will be curved into a shape that fits around a wrist. The molds usually cannot be used again; some artists will even include it with the finished piece of jewelry. Many tufa cast jewelry pieces are one-of-a-kind.
After extensive and intricate silversmithing, a finished product emerges. The possibilities of design are endless, but one thing will always be the same, and that’s the distinctive, organic texture. Aficionados adore the crinkled, nubby feel. It’s what makes tufa cast jewelry unlike anything else. Many artists will oxidize parts of a piece or add a silver overlay to enhance the overall design, but throughout it all there is a texture to this jewelry that’s not found in other types of silver, which is usually of the smooth, shiny variety.
If you’ve never seen tufa cast jewelry and find it an appealing counterpoint to traditional pieces, The Pickle Barrel Trading Post in Globe, Arizona carries remarkable pieces by notable designers such as Darryl Dean Begay, Aaron Anderson, Ernest Rangel, Rebecca Begay, Andy Marion, and Gary Custer. Owning and wearing a piece of tufa cast jewelry means you have a unique, special piece of jewelry. You now have the history and backstory of how these dynamic pieces have come to exist, and the incredible amount of time and effort involved to achieve it.
— Cameron Vines
–Photos by Jim Lindstrom
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