Analysis and conservation of American Indian silver jewelry

Teresa K. Moreno

Abstract

The Indians of the American Southwest did not mine and process silver-bearing ores for silversmithing themselves, but instead originally relied on U.S. and Mexican silver coins or scraps of metal for their raw material which they would hammer out or melt together into small ingots and then hammer into thinner sheets. The westward expansion of the railroad ushered in a rush of people hungry for souvenirs of their adventures in the American west. This increase in demand resulted in an eventual decrease in the quality by Indian silversmiths trying to keep up with the burgeoning market.

The role of the conservator is expanding. Through our examination, analysis, and documentation we may be asked if the composition of the silver in the American Indian jewelry identifies its method of manufacture, or if historical events are documented in its metallurgy. Scientific analysis of a collection of jewelry such as this may also enable the identification of changes in materials and technology over time which may in turn help to provide further insight regarding a relative and approximate date of manufacture. We may be asked to determine the most ethically appropriate and culturally and aesthetically acceptable method of cleaning and conserving American Indian silver jewelry.

This presentation discusses the history of silver mining/refining in the American Southwest and Northern Mexico; the techniques and traditions of American Indian jewelry making; the non-destructive analytical techniques appropriate for American Indian jewelry objects; and the typical forms of silver corrosion. Based on this background research, a study of the Arizona State Museum collection, as well as consultations with American Indian craftsmen and traders and collectors of American Indian silver jewelry, preliminary protocols for conservation cleaning and care are being developed.