Like the moon it’s been associated with for millennia, silver reflects the light that plays on its surface, treating the eye to shades of grays that range from smoldering and smokey to brilliant and brassy. Too soft to be used in fine jewelry such as rings and bracelets on its own, silver is typically alloyed with copper or other metals to give it the strength to shine.
The standard for sterling silver is 92.5 percent pure silver plus 7.5 percent alloy. In the United States, any piece of jewelry that is only 90 percent silver may be sold as silver, without any qualifier. The purity of silver is often described as its fineness, so sterling silver has a fineness of 925. In the U.S., some pieces of silver jewelry will be stamped with the number 900 to designate that it meets the minimum silver-content requirement. Sometimes these pieces are plated, or flashed, with almost pure silver to make their surfaces as reflective and bright as possible.
During the Victorian Era, English jewelers used silver to make everything from simple bands to ones with the words "Mizpah" rendered in relief on them. They were worn by couples and lovers separated by circumstances or travel. Other example of silver jewelry popular in 19th-century England included pins shaped like birds, which were often covered with seed pearls and turquoise...
At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1904, a Copenhagen silversmith named Georg Jensen produced jewelry pieces featuring flowers, bunches of grapes, birds, and other animals. Jensen’s silver was hammered to create a pebbled surface, then oxidized to give his designs depth and distinctive tints. Semi-precious, often locally quarried stones such as agate, amber, opals, and malachite were also used in his work, but sparingly.
For collectors, an important aspect of Jensen’s earliest jewelry is the fineness of the silver, which varied from 826 to 830 to 925 (sterling). It wasn’t until 1933 that sterling silver was used exclusively at Jensen, which gives fans of his early work a clear way to date a vintage piece.
In North America, the tradition of making jewelry out of shells and beads dates to prehistoric times, but it wasn't until the mid-19th century that Native American artisans began producing silver-and-turquoise rings, bracelets, and pins, mostly for religious purposes rather than adornment. When times got tough, people would take their most expendable personal pieces and pawn them. Thus, "old pawn" describes pre-1900 examples of Native American jewelry made of silver. Although there is a lot of jewelry on the market labeled "old pawn," only pieces from the 1800s deserve it.
By the turn of the century, Native American jewelers were producing goods for the tourist trade. One of the controversial aspects of Native American jewelry from this period is the extent to which non-Native traders influenced its production. These traders frequently coached Native American artisans to create designs of little or no cultural or historical relevance, provided them with tools and materials. Silver was the base metal for most of these pieces—squash-blossom necklaces were one of the first styles. Of course, the traders profited by selling the finished pieces to tourists who had ventured into the Southwest via the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad.
South of the border, in Mexico, silversmithing had been practiced for centuries. In fact, Mexican silversmiths taught the Navajo of the Southwestern United States their trade. But it took an American named William Spratling to see the opportunity to build on this legacy. After spending summers in Mexico in the 1920s near the silver-mining center of Taxco, in 1931 he established a retail outlet for Mexican jewelry there.
The Taxco jewelry he designed and that local artisans produced included silver necklaces, pins, bracelets, rings, and other objects. Spratling’s designs borrowed liberally from pre-Columbian motifs found on Mexico’s pyramids and lifted from 14th-century symbols that fill the Codex Zouche-Nuttal. It was open-source material, if you will, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that as his shop succeeded, numerous imitators sprang up nearby.
Some of these competitors were actively encouraged. In fact, the Taxco School, as it is known today, was formed largely from former Spratling employees such as the Castillo brothers, Héctor Aguilar, Antonio Pineda, and Valentin Viadurreta, who brought a Mexican eye to Art Deco. Naturally, these artisans and their shops became incubators for still more generations of jewelers.
For those who could not make the trip to Taxco, U.S. stores imported these popular goods. At one point everyone from fashionable Gump’s in San Francisco to Montgomery Ward in Chicago carried silver jewelry (some decorated with obsidian or amethysts) by Taxco designers.
Modernist jewelers of the day took a completely different approach to their silver jewelry. Instead of looking into the past for inspiration, they had only to glance about and see the work of contemporary painters, sculptors, and other modern artists. Their jewelry was a part of this modern-art movement, and their ambitious goal was to create one-of-a-kind works of art that people could wear.
One of the early champions and practitioners of the form was Sam Kramer, who, like many of his contemporaries, lived, worked, and sold his silver creations in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Another unofficial leader of the modernist-jewelry movement was Kramer’s neighbor Art Smith. His jewelry ranged from simple silver neck rings to biomorphic pieces that drew from African motifs. While Smith made small pieces such as cufflinks and earrings, many of his best works were large enough to wrap the body, as if the human form was the mere backdrop for his creations.
Boomerangs, straight lines intersecting curves, and atomic-age shapes typified Ed Wiener’s Mid-century Modern work. Sometimes a pair of silver earrings resembling deformed hourglasses were adorned with a single pearl; other times, a cat’s-eye agate would be placed in the center of a silver piece. Another Greenwich Village modernist jeweler was Paul Lobel, who designed lovely silver pins and bracelets, as well as silver hollowware.
Interviews & Articles
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Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
All About Jewels Dictionary
Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry
Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery
Clubs & Associations: Fine Jewelry
- American Society of Jewelry Historians
- Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts
- Society of Jewellery Historians