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A superbly-crafted historic Navajo tufa-cast silver buckle

with rare Lone Mountain, Nevada spiderweb turquoise stones

by Ambrose Roanhorse or Ambrose Lincoln, c.1940’s-50’s

We purchased this wonderful buckle years ago at a prominent Santa Fe Indian Arts gallery as being the work of the renowned Navajo silversmith and jewelry instructor, Ambrose Roanhorse (1904-1982), and, until quite recently, we have always had every reason to believe that this was the case. The strikingly modernist, yet classic design sensibility and the technical virtuosity and command of traditional Navajo jewelry-making methods displayed here are all consistent with the beautiful appearance and extremely high technical level we have always associated with Roanhorse’s exceptional silverwork.

Within the last several years, however, a small group of individuals in the Native American Arts field have begun to claim with some possible justification that the capital letter “A” inside a broken arrowhead or keystone hallmark which the generally accepted wisdom had long considered to be Ambrose Roanhorse's hallmark, and which this buckle is hallmarked with, could instead possibly be the mark of a completely different, historic Navajo silversmith named Ambrose Lincoln (1917-), about whom relatively little is known. So if the A/keystone hallmark is ultimately determined to be that of Ambrose Lincoln, what then is the hallmark of Ambrose Roanhorse who had an extremely successful and distinguished 50-plus year career making jewelry and teaching others to do so, and, in both these capacities was critically aware of the importance of proper hallmarking? The revisionist point of view suggests that Roanhorse’s mark is  exclusively the initials “AR" co-joined with a rocking horse motif which is pictured below and which appears on at least one piece of silver, a very fine bridle, that we know of as being documented as Ambrose Roanhorse’s work. Possibly, the truth lies somewhere in the middle here, and, that as Bille Hougart indicated in his authoritative 2011 and 2014 reference books on Native American jewelry hallmarks (entries excerpted below) Ambrose Roanhorse used both of these marks at different times in his long career on different pieces for different reasons as yet unknown.

“It sure feel good when you wear hand-made jewelry. If they use machine jewelry, by golly,

one these days 20 years for now goin’ to have big sandstorms-10 years, 8 years, maybe 5 years.

That’s the way I feel. I learned to make silver from my Grandfather.”

-Ambrose Roanhorse, 1936

Quotation from Billie Hougart, “The Little Book of Marks

on Southwestern Silver”, TBR International, 2011

Although we have seen far fewer pieces with the AR/rocking horse hallmark than with the capital letter “A”/keystone, the larger point here is that most of this work is consistent artistically, stylistically and technically with the same elegant Modernist style and technical proficiency. Such things are often an artist’s true “signature” obviously in addition to, but in some ways equally as important as, the specifics of the actual signatures themselves.  It is also possible that Ambrose Lincoln could have been a student or protege of Ambrose Roanhorse's since they lived and worked in some of the same areas and places and with some of the same people at some of the same times. Possibly, Lincoln admired and was so strongly influenced by Roanhorse’s work that he subsequently adopted some of his techniques and design sensibilities as his own.

Further research should eventually shed some additional light on the subject, but one thing is completely certain for now; this is one absolutely terrific historic Navajo silver buckle no matter who made it. It is also worth noting that had this buckle been made a generation earlier, in the 1920’s or 1930’s, that it most likely would not have been signed at all since that was not the general custom then among Native American artists, and, in that case, this hallmark discussion would not be occurring in the same way and would have to focus almost entirely on the artistic style, technique and history of the buckle than it would on the specifics of the artist’s hallmarks on it.

This buckle is so graceful, harmonious and lovely that the casual observer might never guess how painstakingly difficult the process of making such a piece really was. The buckle is gorgeously tufa-cast in a beautiful open-work design which is a nerve-wracking, uncertain and incredibly difficult process to achieve properly. It displays the ideal tufa-cast quality of strength and a certain delicacy simultaneously. Next, the buckle was beautifully and carefully decorated with fine chisel and stamp work designs and in a final flourish of artistic brilliance further embellished with the addition of two beautiful, high-grade Lone Mountain, Nevada blue spiderweb turquoise stones, one of the rarest and most desirable of all varieties of American turquoise which is regularly now selling in the range of $100-$125 and upwards per carat.

The stones are both set in old-style plain “fold-over” bezels which are further adorned with finely-twisted wire surrounds. The buckle measures 3 3/8” in width and 2 1/2” in height and it weighs a substantial 64 grams or 2 1/4 ounces. It will accommodate a belt of up to 1 1/2” in width. The buckle is signed, as we mentioned previously, with a capital letter “A” inside an arrowhead with a broken tip or keystone, the hallmark we had always believed to be Ambrose Roanhorse’s, although, clearly, that remains to be conclusively proven. No matter which of the two Ambroses turns out to have made it, this buckle is a marvelous and historic piece of Navajo silver crafted by an extremely accomplished historic Navajo silversmith.

Price $3,600

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Ambrose Roanhorse, c. 1940’s

The capital letter “A” inside an arrowhead with a broken tip or “keystone” hallmark on the back of this buckle.

For years, the generally accepted wisdom in the Native American jewelry field has held that this hallmark is Ambrose Roanhorse’s. Lately, a few in the field now claim that this mark is actually that of a different Navajo silversmith, Ambrose Lincoln.

Notably, Bille Hougart’s brief entries for Navajo silversmith “Ambrose Lincoln" in the same volumes

(pp. 200 and  pp. 198) , shown above, state clearly that there is “no mark or stamp known” for him.

In our view, this hallmark and name confusion is an issue which should eventually be able to be clarified and possibly even conclusively resolved by further documentary research which could proceed in any number of potential directions and places. As we mentioned previously, Ambrose Roanhorse was one of the most accomplished and extensively-documented Native American artists, teachers and administrators in history and there should be a definitive record somewhere of the mark or marks that he used on his jewelry. He served for many years in a number of significant official capacities with wide-ranging supervisory and enforcement responsibilities, a few of which were Director of and Jewelry Instructor at The Fort Wingate and Santa Fe Indian Schools, Co-Founder and first Director of The Navajo Nation’s crafts enterprise, The Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild and Co-Administrator and Field Supervisor of the United States Government’s “U.S. Navajo” and “U.S. Zuni” hallmark application, inspection and certification  program along with Rene D’Harnancourt, under the aegis of The U.S. Department Of The Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) in Washington D.C.

Roanhorse clearly understood very well the importance of proper hallmarking and clear and precise identification of Navajo and Pueblo jewelry and it only stands to reason that he would have done so with his own. Logic would tell one that somewhere between Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Institution archive in Suitland, Maryland, Santa Fe, Gallup and Fort Wingate, New Mexico and Window Rock, Arizona, the official seat of the Navajo Nation and headquarters of The Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild, that there should exist records, photographs, letters or other documentary materials which might shed some further light on the subject.

Thus far, the same cannot be said of the more obscure figure of Ambrose Lincoln other than the relatively scant biographical information we have seen of him to date. It is interesting to note that Lincoln does reportedly appear in several of the exact same locales as Ambrose Roanhorse, such as The Fort Wingate Vocational School, The Santa Fe Indian School and various Gallup and other western NM trading posts, but at a later time and some of the identity confusion might arise from this. As shown in his identifying entry on Lincoln above, Hougart mentions the fact that Roanhorse and Lincoln have sometimes even been misidentified as being the same person. More often than not, history takes a while and a considerable amount of effort to sort out. That is the way of the world.

Ambrose Roanhorse with his silversmithing students at the Fort Wingate,

New Mexico Indian school, circa 1940’s. Photo copyright by Laura Gilpin

The two reference book  listings above are excerpted from Bille Hougart, "The Little Book of Marks on Southwestern Silver. Silversmiths, Designers, Guild and Traders". Copyright 2011 by Bille Hougart, TBR International Inc., Washington D.C. and  Billie Hougart, “Native American And Southwestern Silver Hallmarks. Silversmiths, Designers, Guild And Traders”. Copyright 2014, TBR International, Inc., Washington D.C.

This is the identifying entry for Navajo silversmith, “Ambrose Roanhorse" listed on pp. 291 and pp. 288 respectively in Bille Hougart’s authoritative and comprehensive 2011 and 2014 Native American jewelry reference works entitled “The Little Book on Southwestern Jewelry Marks” and “Native American And Southwestern Silver Hallmarks”. Shown at left in the photo, is a hallmark composed of the letters “AR” joined with a rocking horse motif. We have only seen this hallmark on a very few pieces of Navajo silverwork, one of which, a fine bridle, appears to be documented as having been made by Ambrose Roanhorse.

Shown at center and at right, is the capital letter “A” hallmark that we have always identified as being Ambrose Roanhorse’s, the same mark as on the back of our buckle. It is possible, as Bille Hougart illustrates here, that Ambrose Roanhorse could easily have used both these hallmarks, the AR/rocking horse and the capital “A”/keystone at different times, on different pieces, for different reasons and that neither one of these hallmarks is that of Ambrose Lincoln for whom Hougart specifically states in both these volumes that there is no mark known (SEE IMMEDIATELY BELOW).