Technique: Tufa Casting
At Palms Trading Company, we have a wide selection of beautiful hand-crafted Native American Indian Jewelry. Some of the sterling silver jewelry we sell is made through the technique of tufa casting, a unique technique used by some Navajo artists to create intricate works of art.
Development of Silverwork and Tufa Casting
The coming of the Spanish into what is now New Mexico and Arizona precipitated the beginning of silverwork for the Pueblo Peoples and Navajo. The Spanish taught them to work with molten silver to create jewelry and other items.
Before the invention of gas torches, the silversmiths had to melt silver from the embers of a fire left to burn overnight. The silversmith would place silver coins into a crucible, which was placed into the bucket of embers. It would take an hour of fanning the flames to create molten silver. The silver would then be poured into molds created out of tufa stone and allowed to cool.
Modern silversmiths use torches to melt silver.
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.
Tufa stone makes a perfect mold because it is easy to carve and can withstand high temperatures. The texture of the volcanic rock creates jewelry with a very distinct, sandstone-like finish and texture. However, tufa molds typically only last one to two castings before they become unusable.
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
You can see the process in this video of Navajo artist Aaron Anderson demonstrating the creation of a bracelet.
You can also see the end result of this process here at Palms Trading Company. We have some incredibly beautiful tufa cast pieces for sale by some of the best-known silversmiths, including Gilbert ‘Dino’ Garcia. You’ll be amazed at the intricate work of these hand-made pieces!