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Silversmithing

New Mexico jewelry is more than mere adornment, it's a reflection of the taste and personality of the wearer as well as a reflection of the artisans aesthetic sensibilities.
photo of chimney butte and mcdavis otero "My jewelry is who I am", say McDavis Otero of Torreon NM, strongly linking his identity to his work. Otero is typical of many Native American and New Mexican silversmiths/jewelry makers who feel that their life experiences, knowledge and traditions are in some part embodied in their handcrafted pieces. (For an artists story about the meaning and inspiration of the Rock and a Star jewelry, see jewelry page 4 .)

These artists handcraft their own jewelry designs in small workshops, alone or in small team and family groups. The small production runs lend themselves to high quality craftsmanship, and with the chance for continual variation and refinement, each piece is unique. Some work in silver, yet others work in 14k gold , platinum, or alloy their own metals using zinc, silver, copper, or nickel to create unique colors. The stones range from traditional turquoise to exotic stones and shells like coral, sugelite, spiney oyster, amber and opals. All uniquely made by designer craftsmen, the jewelry stands out from the hordes of mass produced ones.

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Some of the major production techniques used are hand stamping, casting, overlay and inlay. No one method excludes another, and they are often used in combination to achieve the artist's final goal. An example of combinative techniques is casting.
link to jewelry by chimney butte and nuguematz In casting a mold is made from an original piece that can be metal or wax. Molten metal, usually silver or gold, is poured into the mold. After cooling, the piece is finished by polishing, or it could be just the beginning as other techniques are applied: cast pieces can be hand stamped, stones are added in bezels or inlaid, and overlays of different metals can be added.

In hand stamped work the artists use hardened metal bits with patterns and a hammer to impress their designs into the metal. Often the stamps themselves are handmade from old tools, like worn or broken files, and even railroad nails.
link to Albert Cleveland jewelry Hand stamped work by New Mexico artists like Albert Cleveland connects us to the production techniques both decades and centuries old. His work done in a 1940's curio style starts with scrap silver that he melts down. By rolling the ingots by hand, he shapes it into flat plates, then by cutting, more shaping and hand stamping they become the thunderbirds, water birds and other animals of traditional Navajo Indian folklore. Lastly, by adding the myriad blues and greens of the familiar and always beautiful turquoise stones, the pieces are completed.


Overlay is a technique where a pattern is cut out of a sheet of silver or other metal, much like making a stencil(the decorative border patterns on these pages are direct copies of Chimney Butte's templates). The metal with the pattern cut out is soldered on to another piece of metal. In the case of silver the piece is often oxidized till it goes dark or black. With polishing, the raised areas of the piece become brilliantly shined, and the silver in the recessed area stays dark. This provides the contrast and depth in design so unique to overlay work.

Chimney Butte and Nuguematz have developed unique styles such as the Rock and a Star jewelry line, but even when radically pushing the boundaries of traditional genres, these artists proclaim their links to their predecessors and traditions. Talking about his and his wife's jewelry, Chimney Butte told me "It's all connected to the past, we are just a bridge to the present".

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