The value of Native American Indian jewelry does not just come from the cost of the materials—the silver and the stones—used to make the piece. The value of each piece is also derived from the artistic tradition that inspired the piece and the craftsmanship that brought it to life.
One of the traditional techniques used by Native American Indian silversmiths (most notably Navajo) to create jewelry is sandcasting. The technique is time- and labor-intensive and, by nature, yields one-of-a-kind art.
History of Sandcasting
Sandcasting as a jewelry-making technique used by the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest dates back to the mid-seventeenth century. Silversmithing techniques were brought to the New World by the Spanish and taught to the people of Mexico. By the 1850s, Native peoples in the Four Corners area had acquired some silver work from Mexican craftsmen through trading. Wanting to know the art themselves, they traded livestock in exchange for silversmithing lessons. One of the techniques taught to the Navajo (who then passed it on to the Zuni who passed it on to the Hopi) was the practice of creating a mold out of sand—sandcasting.
The Sandcasting Process
Sandcasting uses a special type of sand that has a clay-like consistency to create a mold into which molten silver is poured. Briefly, the process goes like this:
- One half of the mold is packed with sand.
- The model is placed or carved into the mold. (This creates the “cope” side of the mold.)
- The second half of the mold is packed with sand.
- A second model may be carved into the second half of the mold or the second half may be laid over the same model to create a mirror image. (This creates the “drag” side of the mold.) The model is removed, leaving a depression in the shape the silver piece will take.
- The two halves of the mold are fastened together and a channel or “gate” is carved to allow molten silver into the model space.
- Molten silver is poured into the mold and allowed to cool.
- The “sprue button” (the silver that fills the entry channel) is cut off, and the silver piece further worked and polished.
Every sandcast piece is truly original because the mold is destroyed by the poured silver.
Unlike sterling silver pieces by many commercial jewelry makers that shine, sandcasting leaves a matte finish, giving the silver a sense of the antique.
Sandcasting is, perhaps, one of the most difficult silversmithing techniques to master. But there are a number of artists who have made a name for themselves by perfecting this technique, creating seemingly flawless intricate designs. Among the sandcasting masters are:
- Harrison Bitsue, Navajo
- Eugene Mitchell, Navajo
- Erick Begay, Navajo