Collectible, Coveted and One of a Kind - The History & Craftsmanship Behind the Sundance Heritage Collection

by - Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Collector’s items, treasures to be loved and passed down from generation to generation, our Heritage Collection is made up of exquisitely handcrafted jewelry from American artisans, past and present. Curated to represent the best of its kind, each piece is rich in history, story and time-honored tradition.

And as with every Sundance item, knowing the story behind it makes the piece all the more special and unique. In the case of our Heritage Collection, there’s much to share.

The Beginnings of Navajo and Pueblo Silverwork – The Classic Period 

It’s believed that Native Americans first began handcrafting jewelry sometime between 1850 and 1870, a period that experts have dubbed the Classic Period. During this time the simplest of tools were used. Forges and bellow were handmade. Pump drills, fashioned from hand-carved wood, were used to manually cut holes in turquoise beads. Hammers, files and other tools for embellishing or finishing pieces were purchased at the local trading post.

In the Classic Period, Mexican or American coins were melted down, poured into ingots and hammered to the desired shape, often fashioned into conchas, or oval metal discs worn on a belt. Coin silver was also used to create bracelets, necklaces or ketoh bracelets, silver-embellished leather cuffs used to protect one’s wrist from the snap of the bowstring.

Native Americans cast silver by carving the outline of the piece in tufa stone, which was then rubbed with charcoal to keep the silver from sticking. A cover was made of the same stone and an opening was carved to enable the liquid silver to be poured into the opening. After the silver casting cooled, the piece was trimmed and filed to its final state.

In 1880, the Navajo mastered soldering and pieces began featuring turquoise that was hand cut, shaped and set in silver. In 1890, a law was passed forbidding the use of American coins and from then on, the Navajo used Mexican coins.

While much of the Heritage Collection dates later than the Classic Period, many of the techniques—from the time- and labor-intensive method of melting silver ingots or coins and then repeatedly hammering and shaping the metal to the desired shape—are still used by our artisans today. So too are the distinctive patterns and motifs, such as the “starburst” design made through the use of cold chisel and files to the classic squash blossom necklace or double-barred cross of the Pueblo peoples.

Entre to a Wider World – The Period of Commercialization

Prior to 1910, Native Americans primarily handcrafted jewelry for their own use, whether to trade among themselves or neighboring tribes or to pawn at local trading posts. In this case, the pawned piece was redeemed when the promised crops or game was delivered to the post.

Jewelry was treasured for its individuality and prized for its turquoise. Tribes began distinguishing themselves with signature styles—the Zuni perfected intricate inlaid turquoise, while the Navajo became known for artful silverwork, including deft repoussé, a technique that involves hand-hammering the silver from the underside to create raised designs.

The Santo Domingo Pueblo artisans of New Mexico took advantage of their proximity to the original Cerrillos turquoise mines, producing fine pieces featuring exquisitely crafted heishi, or flat, handmade beads. These turquoise beads were strung into necklaces, sometimes by the hundreds or thousands in the case of very old and rare Santo Domingo necklaces. Santo Domingo jewelry also featured inlaid pieces or turquoise tab earrings. It’s said that the Santo Domingo jewelry reflects traditions and methods found in Anasazi jewelry dating back thousands of years.

Traders on the reservations took note of the increasingly artful Native American jewelry and many started buying some of the unredeemed pawn pieces. In 1899, the Fred Harvey Company, which held a chain of hotels, restaurants and curio shops, promoted Native American jewelry as a tourist item and began supplying craftspeople with turquoise and silver.

As time went on and the market for the jewelry increased, Native Americans, both men and women, used their jewelry making skills to better their economic wellbeing.

Drawing Upon Tradition – The Period of Modernization & the Heritage Collection

Today, renowned silversmiths and artists, many of whom have Native American ancestry and have studied the ways of traditional jewelry makers. They draw upon these traditions, imbuing their own original pieces with distinctive signature styles and custom stamp work.

The Heritage Collection features the work of many of these modern day masters, including the following artists:

Alice Lovato was born in the Santo Domingo Pueblo and was trained from an early age in the art of making and stringing beads to create the strikingly beautiful necklaces and pieces for which she, and her people, are known.

The Santa Fe silversmith known as Buffalo draws upon his Native American heritage, hand forging pieces out ingot silver and embellishing them with his custom stamps and hand-selected stones.

Charlie Favour grew up amidst the ranches and rodeos of the West and the culture and crafts of the region continue to influence his work, much of which features hand-tanned and –tooled leather, as well as intricate beading and silver work.

Dennis Hogan has a diverse and storied past that led him to pursue a study of traditions southwestern jewelry making, the motifs and sensibility of which continue to be found in his handcrafted pieces.

Jock Favour, a third-generation southwesterner, has studied jewelry making techniques, such as tufa stone casting and hand-forging silver ingots, and employs these methods in his work.

Karl “Kee” Nataani lives and works within the Navajo Nation in Arizona. His impeccable craftsmanship has been perfected over decades and beautifully reflects his heritage.

Jesse Robbins counts Jock Favour among his mentors and has drawn upon his work as an archeologist throughout the Southwest to create ingot-forged pieces blending traditional and modern style.
The late Al Somers learned his art from old Navajo masters and went on to craft his own tools and stamps fashioned after those from the early classic Navajo period. Al worked with his wife Kim Somers, sharing his knowledge and techniques. Today, Kim carries on his legacy, creating original, hand-crafted works inspired by Al Somers’ artistry and embellished with stamp work made using his stamps.

We’re honored to share the art and stories of these masters with you and we promise to continue our search for the finest pieces so that you, and those to whom you pass on this rare and exquisite jewelry, may share in this rich tradition.

Discover our heritage collection here.

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