I am so excited to introduce our new series, “The Fine Details” – This series will focus attention on the Fine details in Navajo Jewelry – These topics are meant to spur healthy, respectful debates that focus on the topic given. We will kick-off this event with how to spot Hand-Domed Beads vs. Machine-Made beads. Please feel free to post photos, blog posts etc. to Support your research, or just ask questions. The idea is to strengthen our knowledge while collecting to help make better decisions when purchasing Native American Jewelry.
When I was just starting out as a collector I fell in love with squash blossom necklaces, and the beads were one my favorite parts. Like most young collectors, I would purchase anything I found while out on the hunt, and especially when the tag used words like, “Museum Quality” or “Dead-Pawn”. It wasn’t until later that I started to learn how to spot the difference in Hand-Domed beads from Machine-Made beads, which I will try to illustrate today, with the help of you, the members.
One of the hallmarks of Navajo jewelry is handmade, hand-domed Navajo silver beads aka: Navajo Pearls, aka: Desert Pearls. These beads have been made and worn since the mid 1800’s – The process of making handmade beads is very labor-intensive and includes: Measuring the heavy-gauge silver; Adding stamp work (if desired); Punching the central opening; Then lightly working/shaping each side of the ‘soon-to-be’ bead by lightly tapping the silver into a die.
The process of working with the die seems to be the most intense part IMO – The artist is literally tapping the stamped silver plates from one bowl of the die, making sure to start with the largest and keep working the piece through the various shapes to get the desired ‘cup’ shape, taking extreme care not to hammer out his stamp-work (if applicable). To the left is an example of a basic Die-Block.
Once the desired shape is achieved the artist will then ensure that both cups of the soon-to-be bead fit together properly – If not, then it’s wasted work and he/she will have to start over. Once the pieces are properly shaped and die-work is complete, the artist will sand the ends for a nice clean fitting and solder them together. The final step is to carefully drill a hole into each portion of the bead to allow the chain to pass through.
This process is the same for each bead, but keep in mind the process changes if there is graduated beads involved. In this case the artist will have to update their measurements, stamps and die-work but going through the same process.
I am posting a video I found on You-Tube that explains this process, although not the best quality, you get the idea for this labor-intensive work. I hope you will take a moment to watch, and educate yourself on the work the artists are still put into making handmade ‘pearls’ today.
In the Late 1960s and into today, there was a Native American Jewelry Boom in the US, and around the world. During this time is when we started noticing Machine-made portions of products, and the most noticeable is the machine-made ‘Bench-Beads’ or ‘beads’.
The introduction of the machine-made bead was just as it sounds, a machine was stamping/shaping these beads into desired cups (skipping the die process)
and made available to artists in 2 pieces, allowing them to purchase and put together. These were referred to as, “Bench-Made Beads” (if you are an artist, your opinion is greatly appreciated). One of the easiest ways to spot machine-made beads, is to notice the “Shoulders” or squared off curve of the bead. I’ve included a photo to illustrate:
Another Hallmark of Machine-Made beads is the very consistent flat openings to the beads that can only be produced by a machine Handmade beads will have a more inconsistent opening (although uniform in placement), with a ‘fluting’ effect from the punching of the hole in its infancy. I’ve included a photo to illustrate:
Machine-made beads can be found anywhere from squash blossom necklaces, to strung pearl necklaces, to necklace extenders.
I want to be clear about the work from the 1970s – Some of the best turquoise mined was dug-up in the 70s, so most pieces created back then were all about the Turquoise with less emphasis on Silverwork.
Now the question is, “How does this affect value?” – If you can imagine the amount of work and time it takes to make each individual bead, as we have discussed, then you know they come with a hefty price and rightly so right? When it comes to handmade goods of any sort, nothing machine-made can compare; especially to the attention to detail and the Incredible care taken to deliver such a good. So to say Navajo Pearls are priceless, is an understatement.
The purpose of this article is to inform the collector of the fine details in Navajo Jewelry; To give the collector the information needed to make educated decisions and to discern between two products. Our Navajo Brothers & Sisters work hard to deliver their goods, and put pride in their work, so please remember this when negotiating, or asking values. To cheapen a handmade product, is to take away the care, appreciation, & Respect put into their goods.
I am including a step-by-step picture-process of making a bead by artist Mike Schmaltz:
Thank you to Mike Schmaltz for contributing to this article.