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A rare and historic “Navajo Pearls” ingot

coin-silver bead necklace, c.1900-1910

“Navajo Pearls” are one of the most delightful types of historic Southwestern jewelry ever made. Good old ones are extremely rare, extremely beautiful and were extremely difficult to make, but are wonderfully easy and rewarding to wear and the superb, larger-sized, early 20th Century hand-crafted strands of silver beads such as this one are getting more and more difficult to come by with every passing year as we can personally attest. Despite constantly and comprehensively looking, this is only the fourth strand of older Navajo silver beads of this age and quality that we have been able to acquire in the past 25 years.

The traditional method used by Navajo silversmiths to make these beads was laborious and painstaking; American or Mexican silver coins were first melted down and cast into small ingot-silver “slugs” which were then hammered or “dapped” into semi-circular shaped round silver forms, two for each bead. The semi-circular shaped forms were then carefully punched out in the center, trimmed and filed and painstakingly fitted and soldered together and polished to form each finished round silver bead. An alternative method used for making smaller diameter silver beads was to use small silver coins such as “Barber” style dimes which would be filed down on one or both sides to remove the minted design and then hammered or “dapped” directly into the desired semi-circular shape. The first method is more labor and time intensive but the amount of concentrated effort and practiced skill required to do this successfully and beautifully using either method is nearly impossible to imagine.

Historic dapping block and tools at left, and, at right, dapping tools, hammer, period silver coins and cast ingot coin-silver “slug” of the types used by turn-of-the-century Navajo silversmiths to make handmade coin ingot-silver beads like the beads which make up this necklace.

An Isleta Pueblo woman dressed in her finery for a formal studio photographic portrait,

c. 1900, including Navajo silver bead necklaces quite similar to this one. Such necklaces

were prestigious, high-demand pieces for Navajo and Pueblo people.

Photo source and © The Albuquerque Museum

This necklace consists of 32 handmade, two-piece, coin ingot-silver beads which each measure approximately 7/16” in diameter. The beads have that lovely, gleaming “white” color that comes from old ingot coin-silver. The necklace has clearly been worn and loved quite a bit over its many decades of life and it has the fine, lustrous patina that only comes from years of age and use. The necklace could very easily be polished to a brighter luster, if desired, but we prefer to keep it “as-is” and let the next owner decide whether they prefer to polish it up or not. We recently had the necklace professionally and securely re-strung for safety on sturdy foxtail wire chain and finished with a beautiful, handmade, white cotton traditional “Pueblo”-style wrap which is approximately 8” in length. As presently configured, the necklace is not for someone with a larger sized head because the necklace is on the somewhat shorter side and it must fit completely over the head to wear. It could, of course, be easily re-strung using a longer cotton wrap or installing a clasp, if desired. The necklace measures 10 1/2” in length from the top of the cotton wrap to the bottom of the silver beads measured while lying flat on a table and it is approximately 21” in circumference all the way around. It weighs a very nice feeling yet quite comfortable 75 grams or 2 5/8 ounces. The beads are in generally excellent condition overall with over a century’s worth of age-appropriate wear and patina.

This rare and striking necklace is a gorgeous and classic piece which will immediately turn envious attention in your direction whenever you choose to wear it which could be anywhere from a totally formal to the most casual occasion. It is at once completely contemporary and completely historic and timeless. These beads are lovely, precious silver “pearls” which emerged not from the depths of the deep-blue sea but from the hands of a talented Navajo silversmith somewhere in the vast expanses of the Southwestern desert over a century ago.

Price $2,450

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