Pieces of silver: Book tells history of Native American earrings

One day, New Salem, Mass., silversmith Bobby Bauver was chatting with a friend from New Mexico, Robert Gallegos, a connoisseur of Native American and Hispanic art. Gallegos was about to sell a collection of Navajo and Pueblo earrings.

Bauver made a suggestion. “I said, ‘You know, before you disperse this, let me look at it, because I think there might be something important.’” At the very least, he thought he could catalogue the earrings.

Gallegos agreed to let him examine the pieces. After a year of arranging and rearranging them so “they made sense,” Bauver discovered that they told a historical tale of Southwest silver work, techniques, and design.

The catalogue turned into the book, “Navajo and Pueblo Earrings 1850- 1945,” published last year by Rio Grande Press in Albuquerque.

“The earrings in their earlier forms were very, very simple,” he says.

History, necessity, cultural exchange, technological development, and world events helped shape their evolution into something more complex.

The process began in the mid-19th Century, when Navajo artisans, and Laguna and Acoma smiths learned to forge silver from itinerant Hispanic metal-workers. The Navajo taught the craft to the Zuni, and later the Hopi.

Smiths hammered ingots from melted American or Mexican coins, flattening them into sheets. Bauver describes early earrings as little more than large hoops, weighing as much as two ounces, with silver balls at the bottom. Native wearers reported that “when you rode a horse, you sometimes had to hook them over the top of your ears so they wouldn’t hurt as the horse jogged along.”

Then, jewelers learned that deft hammer blows could broaden a hoop into a flat circle, or create crescents, like Hispanic women wore.

Lacking the technology to make fine wire, Native Americans didn’t do much filigree work. They engraved, punched, and stamped designs into the shaped metal. When they began setting turquoise into silver around 1880, earrings became perfect for experiments with technique and design.

Zuni artists developed a love for stones, especially small ones. By the 1940s, they created earrings with dozens of well-cut studs, arranged in tiers with dangles at the bottom. “That style persists to this day,” says Bauver.

Zunis also adapted inlay to silver. “That comes from a prehistoric tradition,” he explains. Archaeologists have found shell or cottonwood earrings set with small turquoises, glued in place by piñon pitch.

Jet and shell inlay arrived during World War II, when silver and turquoise became hard to get. “They had to rely on ingenuity to make jewelry to sell and maintain a living.”

The Navajo adapted Zuni techniques, inlaying larger stones into sturdy bracelets and broaches. But always “more involved with the metal itself,” they fashioned beautiful silver concho belts and earrings, setting few studs into them.

Traders, anthropologists, and ethnographers also influenced earring development. Some designed their own pieces, hiring smiths to create them. “We see [them] making [silver work] a commodity instead of a simple native art form,” muses Bauver.

As the tourist market burgeoned around 1900, traders encouraged artists to make lighter earrings. “Native peoples like very heavy jewelry, where as the Victorian ladies couldn’t handle some of that.”

Traders also identified designs that visitors would consider “Indian”: whirling logs, good luck arrows, lightning bolts, or thunderbirds. Artists stamped these into earrings.

In the 1930s, an ethnographer suggested that Hopi smiths put prehistoric pottery designs on jewelry. The artisans rejected the idea, but after World War II Hopi GIs took governmentsponsored silversmithing classes emphasizing this style.

People now regard prehistoric designs on jewelry as Hopi, though the Hopi have always explored other ideas as well.

“There are a number of styles of earrings that are considered traditional,” says Bauver. “But there are innumerable jewelers doing modern things.”

Bauver came to his knowledge of Native American silver because of his love of Indian art and culture. He attended the University of New Mexico in the 1970s, a time when Native American jewelry enjoyed rising popularity. He visited pawn shops, galleries, and reservations, asking questions and learning about silver.

“As Mark Twain said, I never let school get in the way of my education,” he chuckles.

Eventually, he met a Navajo woman from a family of silversmiths, and learned her techniques in their hogan. When he returned to Massachusetts another woman taught him to make hollow ware, and to do enameling on silver. Now he restores early Southwest jewelry, and occasionally makes his own pieces, including a spoon for his nephew’s baby daughter.

Bauver met Gallegos 35 years ago at an Indian art show. They became friends. Today, they often travel the Southwest together. So when Gallegos’ collection of earrings “dropped into [Bauver’s] lap,” he had the knowledge to write about it.

Writing “Navajo and Pueblo Earrings 1850-1945” took months. Early histories of jewelry mentioned earrings in passing. Ethnographers and anthropologists had more interest in concho belts and squash-blossom necklaces. But when he gathered the existing material on earrings, he could see patterns of development.

‘I took over the dining-room table and had stacks and piles, and told everyone to stay away and not touch anything.”

He then wrote nonstop, “not moving” from the table for months.

“You need to just get through it,” he says. “And then perhaps once you’re finished, you put it aside, then go back and reread, to make sure it still makes sense.” Bauver exhales slowly. “And so far, it all does.”


From -November 2007, Arts & Entertainment.