Dewey Nelson

Silver

Dewey Nelson

A brief summary of historical and technical aspects of my silver practice

 

The history of silversmithing in the southwest among the aboriginal people began with the northern expansion, and colonization efforts of the Spanish. Metallurgy, and silversmithing were skills learned by individuals who would have been assisting Spanish blacksmiths, and other tradesmen. The people of the eastern pueblos in what is now known as New Mexico would have had the earliest, extensive contact with the Spaniards. As silversmithing traveled among the various pueblo peoples, and the Navajo, each group developed distinct styles, and techniques. Many spanish design motifs that were introduced to early silversmiths are still prevalent in contemporary southwestern silver work.

I originally learned silversmithing from Lawrence Saufkie, and Michael Kabotie, who were both innovators in the Hopi overlay style of silversmithing. Recently I began learning an earlier style of silversmithing also called whitesmithing, or tinsmithing. When silver is forged, and worked cold by hand these terms are often applied to the process.

Most early silver jewelry people are familiar with would have been made of melted coins. Coin silver is generally 90% silver, and 10% copper alloy. Serious collectors value the earlier process of casting coin, making contemporary work made of coin more desirable. To make silver ingots I melt coins, or sterling silver. The material I use to cast ingots in is Tufa. Tufa is a sedimentary layer of rock that occurs in northeastern Arizona. Tufa occurs all over the world. The Tufa found in the high desert of northeastern Arizona is especially fine, free of foreign debris, and easily carved. Once the desired form is carved in the stone, silver is heated until molten in a crucible, and poured into the mold. The rough ingot is then filed, and cold forged on an anvil. When the ingot resembles the desired shape, design work is laid out, and stamped into the silver.

The stamps that I use in my silver work are entirely handmade. Stamps are made from steel which is softened with high heat, and formed into various design elements, then re-hardened. These design elements are then stamped, or hit with a hammer into an annealed piece of silver. I create patterns that are unique to my symbology. Rain clouds, lightning, and rain are all major themes in my jewelry.

 

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