Native American artistry in turquoise jewelry

A Mark Yazzie solid 18K gold spiderweb gem-grade turquoise squash blossom necklace, 24 inches long, sold for $21,000 in September 2019. Photo courtesy of Billy The Kid Auction House and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – From statement necklaces to chunky cuff bangles, Southwestern turquoise jewelry has long been sought after for its turquoise, which can take on a variety of hues from pale robin’s egg blue to a vivid greenish-blue. Minerals present in the ground where a particular turquoise stone is found affect its coloration with copper creating a bluer turquoise and iron giving a greener hue.

Turquoise can be rock-hard or soft and easily damaged when cut (as in the jewelry process) so the hardest examples mined were especially rare. Turquoise stones that have been stabilized with an epoxy agent are less valuable. Certain mines in the Southwest, like Nevada’s Lander Blue mine, were prized for their valuable yields of hard turquoise. The earliest turquoise mine was reported to be in Cerillos, New Mexico, and mines once dotted Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico but now are mostly shuttered.

A Frank Vacit (Zuni, 1915-1999) silver cuff bracelet in turquoise and jet channel inlay fetched $7,500 in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Austin Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Native American artisans and other jewelry makers have long used turquoise stones in jewelry, setting small polished cabochons and bigger stones into rings, bracelets, pins, bolos, earrings and necklaces. Silver contrasts well with turquoise and is a popular design though gold is also used. Contemporary jewelers attract buyers to the Southwest with their new pieces, carrying on a storied tradition. For those seeking vintage and antique pieces, however, the “old pawn” pieces are the most desirable, made circa 1910-1930. Old pawn refers to the practice of people pawning their jewelry, mostly Native American pieces, for a year, for an immediate payout from a trader. The item would then become “dead pawn” if it failed to be claimed within a year. Native American members traveled extensively in those days so pawning their items often afforded them temporary safekeeping for these goods.

“Really nice quality pieces were being made so these were handmade pieces and it was in the traditional style,” said Whitney Bria, jewelry specialist at Clarke Auction Gallery in Larchmont, New York, who has adored Southwest turquoise jewelry for years. “I love turquoise, it varies in color and also the natural inclusions, the striations, the similarity to a spiderweb. Those organic forms appeal to me,” she said. “It’s also the tradition in the way that a lot of Southwest jewelry is created.”

This Charles Loloma (Hopi, 1921-1991) 14K gold and silver Tufa cuff bracelet with Lander turquoise earned $17,000 in January 2020. Photos courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

This jewelry has been made by Native American groups and European-descent settlers who came out West in the 1880s. Among Native American groups renowned for their early turquoise jewelry were the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni groups. Signed pieces tend to bring the most money and well-collected artisans include Charles Loloma, a Hopi Native American jeweler in the 20th century and Navajo jeweler Fred Peshlakai, who has been described as serving as a transition point between 19th century Navajo silversmithing techniques and the modernist 20th century silversmiths.

A popular form is the squash blossom necklace, which is distinguished by its decorative smithed flowers running the length of the chain terminating in an inverted crescent pendant that is called a “Naja” by the Navajo. The pendant has been interpreted as purely decorative yet its form has been used in many cultures going back to antiquity. “As time has progressed, both the squash blossoms and the Naja have developed into various designs and styles,” notes River Trading Post on its website.

A Charles Supplee (Hopi, b. 1956) 18K gold and inlay cuff bracelet with an offset gold ear of corn and turquoise brought $9,000 in January 2020. Photos courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Nonindigenous jewelers have adopted many styles from Native Americans. Italian jeweler Frank Pattania Sr. grew up in the Italian tradition but after coming to the United States was heavily influenced by Southwest styles, creating many statement necklaces featuring turquoise. “In our last auction, we had a collar or bib form necklace by Frank Pattannia Sr.,” Bria said. “He went through a Southwest period in design and his Southwest stylistic pieces are very desirable.”

Next to squash blossom necklaces, turquoise bracelets are practically synonymous with Native American artistry. “Southwestern silversmiths made four basic types of bracelets: the early bangles decorated with filing or stamping; two or more bangles soldered in parallel and decorated with stamping and stones; a flat band or cuff decorated with stamping, repoussé or stones; and openwork cast bracelets left plain or set with stones,” according to the website of Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona, which notes that channel inlay bracelets were a favored style for Zuni artisans in the 1940s.

A Frank Patania Sr. sterling silver bib-form necklace comprised of a graduated row of bezel-set turquoise and a second graduated tier of sterling scroll form pendants, Thunderbird mark, made $3,400 in January 2020. Photo courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Old turquoise, especially Native American examples, holds its value and continues to attract collectors today. “Authentic Navajo turquoise jewelry is a wonderful investment because it will always be in style, and it tends to appreciate in value over time,” according to Southwest Silver Hill Gallery. Bria notes auctions and flea markets are a great place to find Southwest pieces. “If it’s an investment piece, it should usually be signed but for anyone who just wants to acquire a collection of Southwest jewelry, you can find rings fairly inexpensively. “Signed pieces and squash blossom necklaces usually go somewhere between $500 to $2,000 at auction, depending on who the maker is,” she said. “It is a realm of jewelry that is accessible to everyone.”