Gallup’s Silver Lining

Imagine driving Eastbound on Interstate 40.

You’ve already crossed the California/Arizona state line, and you’re reaching the eastern end of Arizona. The New Mexico border is a just a few miles ahead. You notice plastic animals: a deer, bear, and elk are propped against red cliffs towering above a tall wooden fence with “Chief Yellowhorse” scrawled across it. This is the first of many trading posts you will encounter while driving parallel to Route 66 in this part of the U.S.

As you continue east, truck stops and hotels scatter along both sides of the freeway. Signs encourage travelers to stop and enjoy Gallup, NM. Downtown Gallup sits to the right of the freeway alongside railroad tracks and rusting warehouse buildings. You see signs sporting illustrated chiefs and arrows in neon pink, red and yellow. They read “Richardson’s Cash Pawn. Indian Jewelry, Rugs, Pawn-Loans, Navajo Wholesale.” You feel as though you’ve entered a place that has remained untouched by time.

Downtown Gallup seems untouched by time.

The stores in downtown Gallup, New Mexico, in a sense, have stayed true to a time, to older creators of Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi jewelry. Age is sensed and seen as you step into these stores. Buffalo hides hang beside oil paintings and wooden posts. Rugs tumble down the insides of the store. The turquoise is old. The silver is dark and heavy, signaling that they were produced in a time when silversmiths had style, when they cut moulds into soft sandstone, when they used self-made stamps with original and unique patterns, when they created complicated and sophisticated squash blossoms, bracelets, bridles, and belts.

Many would agree that jewelry produced by Navajo silversmiths represents one of the best arts to materialize from the 200-year-span of Spanish, Navajo, and Pueblo peoples crossing, to emerge from adaptation, conquer, and sharing throughout the Southwest beginning in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

 

 

A Nineteenth Century member of the Navajo Tribe wearing silver conchos and other jewelry.

 

It is now the year 2011 and Alvin Thompson sifts through a tattered backpack carrying original jewelry stamps created by his father. “Once, I asked him why he took up silversmithing,” Thompson explains. “All he said was ‘we were hungry.’”

Alvin Thompson runs a small convenience store in Churchrock, NM, a family-owned business that has been sitting among the community built around the red rocks on the East side of Gallup since 1964.

“I know that my father learned from older silversmiths living in the area,” Thompson recalls as he glances at Pyramid Rock, the backdrop to his family’s home and history.

His father’s art, Thompson tells, was a “unique art that couldn’t be replicated.” His silver creations included bowties, rings, bridles, bracelets, and concho belts.

“He would sit in hogans and watch their crafts evolve. This must’ve been sometime in the 30s, around the end of the Great Depression, and it’s just something he picked up.”

Silver was not indigenous to tribes occupying the Southwest prior to 1860. It is believed that Mexican silversmiths, or plateros, brought silver to Pueblos to sell and trade for products. Turquoise, a stone treasured by the indigenous peoples of the area and widely associated with silverwork stood as the main ornament in silverwork, with the exception of some shell and other stones.

Many credit the dawn of the craft to Atsidi Sani (old smith) who is believed to have learned the craft in the early 1850s. He returned to Navajoland in 1868 after being held captive in Fort Sumner. He returned and taught the craft to his sons, who later taught people in surrounding areas. The art of silversmithing spread.

The art evolved to incorporate materials other than stones. Mexican and U.S. Coins were placed into the sterling silver. Soon, demands were made. Trading posts began to stock popularized items. Shortly after, commercial cutting, soldering, grinding, and polishing tools were needed.

The process of this art remained the same until the 1960s and 70s, a time, Thompson explains, when “craftsmanship diminished.” When companies on a much larger scale of industry realized that there was money to be made off of the jewelry, they took the basic ideas and made machines that mass produced patterns and designs that once took months to make. Concho Belt cutouts were designed to only require one step, setting the stones in. The price of sterling silver rose, sending jewelry makers to producers of nickel silver, a lesser material. “In pottery and rugs, the authenticity is still there,” Thompson explains, “you can’t cheat that art. Jewelry, on the other hand, can be disguised.”

Navajo silver squash blossom necklace. Credit: silverborders.com

And so it can. For example, this author recently had a bracelet””most likely purchased in Gallup”” identified as inauthentic by a jewelry student. He studied the sterling silver bracelet’s

design, the order and pattern in which the white stones were placed.

“This isn’t authentic. It isn’t even from the U.S.,” he explained.

He was able to make that determination by the small stamped numbers lining the inside. He pointed and rubbed the 257 with his thumb.

“These numbers are only something that international jewelers stamp. This is number 257 of this bracelet, like a print,” he says.

Walking through the shops of downtown Gallup comforts the fear that jewelry is being lost to cheaper, mass-produced items. Store shelves are lined with unique squash blossoms, bracelet, and rings sporting sophisticated designs. The designs are old, impossible to duplicate, crafted by a much older generation in a much simpler time.

“People talk about losing language,” Thompson continues. “To me, silversmithing is its own language, and it is one that younger generations can easily lose.”

Like jewelry in the pawn shops help customers cling to memories of what once was, and maybe even represent a part of culture that younger generations should fight to practice and hold on to, the package of cheap cookies sitting on his table help Alvin Thompson cling to the tradition of his father’s silversmithing. “My favorite times,” he explains, “were spent working with my dad in his hogan, eating cookies, drinking coffee, and listening to 1330 AM, the All Navajo All The Time radio station. His jewelry is what I remember him by.”

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