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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Navajo silver design necklace with 23 oxblood-red coral stones, circa 1970; sold: $660. Photo courtesy of Allard's Auctions
A Navajo silversmith identified as Slim, Maker of Silver, is pictured in an 1885 studio photo displaying his wares, a large concha belt, a squash blossom necklace and jewelry-making tools. Taught to work silver by the Mexicans in the late 1860s, the Navajo traded and bartered animal skins, trinkets, and livestock amicably in the beginning.

A closer look at the photo reveals a crescent-shaped pendant called a naja, dangling from the end of Slim’s squash blossom necklace. It resembles an inverted horseshoe.

This same crescent shows up again and again throughout history, waiting perhaps for just the right moment to unlock its mystery.

Crescent symbols hung around the necks of camels in the Phoenician culture. In ancient Africa and Crete they appeared. From the Romans to the Moors and Spanish, the symbol emerged.

Sometimes the crescent hung from horse-bridles as a way of warding off the evil eye. The crescent came to the Navajo from bridles first used by the Ute and the Kiowa.

The symbol served as its own kind of sign language, a metaphor for what people knew beyond what could be seen.

Early Navajo silver work focused on bracelets, concha belts, bow guards, tobacco flasks and necklaces. Around 1880, turquoise appeared in their silver jewelry.

For better or worse, the early popularity of Southwestern Native American jewelry came as a result of one man, Frederick H. Harvey. Harvey was the principal food vendor for the new transcontinental Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company in the last- half of the 19th century.

Harvey also installed souvenir counters along the route and encouraged Native Americans to sell their jewelry, blankets, and baskets. Some even rode the trains to offer their goods.

The Navajo jewelry sold was massive but simple in design. The cast-silver was thick with a roughened finish. The Zuni emphasized semiprecious stones with unusual settings. The Hopi borrowed Navajo and Zuni techniques. By 1930, they developed their own style, an overlay in which polished silver ornaments were set upon silver backgrounds, giving a three-dimensional effect.

The silver is heavier in these older pieces because it was hammered from silver coins. Some of the most desirable jewelry were pieces Native Americans made for their own use or for trade within their community.

The seams were carefully soldered. The bezels were tailored to the stones rather than the other way around. Turquoise was the most desirable stone and the finest grade was hard with a clear-blue color.

Nowadays, lower grades of turquoise are sometimes used that have been stabilized with a sealer to strengthen and enhance their color. Value depends on the quality of workmanship and design as well as age and materials used.

On Aug. 10-11, Allard Auctions, St. Ignatius, Mont., offered a selection of squash blossom necklaces in its Santa Fe, N.M., auction. Here are some current values.

Squash blossom necklaces

Navajo old pawn necklace with single, natural turquoise in naja and handmade beads; circa 1935; $187.

Navajo silver necklace with coral and mother-of-pearl stones; circa 1980; $187.

Navajo turquoise and silver with Kingman turquoise in cluster design; signed W. Begay; circa 1950; $302.

Navajo classic turquoise and silver design with smoky Bisbee stones; circa 1980; $385.

Zuni traditional turquoise and silver needlepoint design, matching naja; circa 1970; $440.

Navajo silver design necklace with 23 oxblood red coral stones; circa 1970; $660.

Navajo blue-gem turquoise and silver squash blossom-style; handmade beads and matching bracelet; circa 1940; $880.

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