A Brief History of Native American Silver Work
When the Spanish came into what is now New Mexico and Arizona, they brought with them silver and other metal, this was the beginning of silver work for the Pueblo Peoples and Navajo. The Spanish taught them to work with molten silver to create jewelry and other items.
The old silversmiths would have to melt silver from the embers of a fire left burning overnight. The silversmith would place silver coins into a crucible, which was placed into the bucket of embers. They would have to fan the flames for an hour or longer to create the molten silver. The silver would then be poured into molds created out of tufa stone and allowed to cool.
Today Silversmiths use torches to melt the silver down, many still use the tufa to create on-of-a-kind works of art.
Tufa stone is a soft and porous volcanic stone that can be found in many parts of the world, including the Navajo reservation in Arizona and as far away as Armenia and Western Australia.
The tufa stone is perfect for making molds because of its softness, making it easy to carve designs into. However because of its chemistry and being a volcanic stone it can withstand high temperatures making it ideal for the tufa cast jewelry process. The texture created from the tufa stone is very unique giving each piece of jewelry created through this process a unique look and feel. However, because the stone is very soft and porous it can typically only be used once or twice for casting.
Tufa Casting Process
The tufa casting process is much the same today as when the Spanish first introduced silver work to the Native American Indians. Once the design has been sketched or conceptualized, the basic process is as follows:
- The design is carved into the stone. This requires a delicate hand, especially for intricate designs.
- The tufa stone is carbonized, or covered with a fine layer of ash
- The two sides of the mold are bound together
- The silver is melted in a crucible using a torch until it is molten and glowing
- The molten silver is poured into the mold to cool and harden
- Once the silver has hardened, it is taken out of the mold and filed and sanded to get rid of any unwanted burrs, sand or extra pieces
- The final product is polished