A Tradition in Silver: The Remarkable History of Hopi Jewelry

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The art of silversmithing is a relative newcomer to the Hopi people of northern Arizona, whose history and artistic traditions stretch back well over 1,000 years to the time of the Ancestral Pueblo people. In fact, the first Hopi silversmith didn’t come along until around the turn of the 20th century.

Yet, despite the somewhat recent arrival, it certainly didn’t take long for the silversmiths of Hopi to become renowned for their distinctive designs and precise technique—and today, Hopi produces some of the most sought-after and collectable silver jewelry in the world.

The story of Hopi silverwork actually begins with a Zuni trader and silversmith named Lanyade.

The Hopi and Zuni Pueblos had been trading partners for centuries. Around 1890, Lanyade began trading his hand-made silver jewelry with the Hopi, usually in exchange for hand-woven cotton textiles. He eventually taught the art of working with silver to a Hopi man named Sikyatala, who began producing silver jewelry around 1898. Sikyatala, in turn, taught silver work to several other Hopi men, who then shared their knowledge with others over the next several decades.

The first Hopi silver pieces—typically beads, rings, and bracelets—tended to be indistinguishable from those made by Zuni and Navajo artists at the time. It really wasn’t until the 1930’s when a distinct Hopi style began to appear, thanks in large part to the encouragement of an artist from Pennsylvania named Mary-Russel Colton.

In 1930, Colton established the Hopi Craftsman Exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona, which primarily showcased traditional Hopi weaving, basketry, and pottery. In 1938, the museum turned its attention to Hopi jewelry makers. Colton suggested that Hopi jewelry should be distinct and immediately recognizable as Hopi designs, which would then help create a new market specifically for Hopi jewelry.

Innovative Hopi silversmiths like Victor Coochwytewa responded by creating unique new pieces based on traditional Hopi pottery and textile designs, often using a technique called overlay. This technique involves two layers of silver sheets—a design is etched into one sheet, which is then soldered into a second sheet with a cut-out design which allows the lower sheet to show through. The top layer is then polished while the bottom layer left to oxidize and darken.

Despite this new focus on Hopi-specific designs, there were still only a few silversmiths in Hopi until 1946. That’s when Willard Beatty, director of Indian Education at the US Department of the Interior, developed a silversmithing program for returning Hopi World War II veterans. This new generation of Hopi silversmiths, taught by influential artists like Fred Kabotie and Paul Saufkie, created pieces that made use of more stylized traditional patterns and designs. This led to the creation in 1958 of the Hopi Silvercraft Cooperative Guild, which helped Hopi silversmiths continue to hone their techniques.

One of the major artists to emerge from this group was Charles Loloma, who won several major awards and international acclaim through his use of non-traditional inlay materials—including gold, pearls, and wood—in his silver work.

Today, Hopi silversmiths continue to innovate, incorporating traditional Hopi designs and silversmithing techniques into thoroughly modern works of art.

"I saw it being produced as a child, and I was always interested in what (the silversmiths) were doing," says internationally-recognized silversmith Gerald Lomaventema. But it wasn't until after high school and a couple of years of college in Phoenix that he began to look at it as a possible career.

After returning to Hopi, Lomaventema started taking classes at the Hopi Silversmith Co-op, where he spent nearly a decade as an apprentice for older silversmiths and jewelers like Roy Talahaheftewa, Phil Naavasya, Duane Maktima and Steve LaRance

“I wasn’t an artist, so it took me a while to get into drawing and design,” says Lomaventema, whose background to that point had actually been in construction.  “Most Hopis are natural artists except me,” he says with a laugh.

Lomaventema may not have started with an artistic background, but he soon got the hang of it. He left the Co-op in 2000, and began working on his own. Since then, he has become internationally known for his unique, contemporary pieces recognized for their precision and beauty.

He says that he gets his inspiration from Hopi art and culture.

“Each piece is very meaningful. When I think of something to make, I’m thinking of a certain aspect of our religion or what we do daily,” says Lomaventema. “For everything we take, we have to give something in return. This is through community involvement and being an active part of our culture and religion.”

Lomaventema says that one lesson he tries to impart to his students—both in Hopi and beyond—is the importance of picking artistic themes and designs that are personally meaningful to them, instead of simply replicating something that has already been done.

“I want people to know the history of Hopi jewelry, and why the elders brought this gift to us,” says Lomaventema. “I hope people will come up with their own designs, instead of copying Native designs. You have to create your own individuality. I tell my students that you have to do designs that are meaningful to you.”

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s Cultural Explorations program is proud to present the Hopi Jewelry Workshop, a six-day workshop where participants get to learn the basics of silversmithing and jewelry making from Gerald Lomaventema—and actually create their own unique jewelry. For more information on this opportunity of a lifetime, click here or call 1-800-422-8975.