Navajo silversmiths accredited Herrero as being the first Navajo silversmith. Shortly after the 21st of November, 1858, Herrero was elected "head chief" of the Navajo around Fort Defiance. He began working in iron as a blacksmith, later, as it has been told, he learned silversmithing from a Mexican silversmith named Cassilio. The Mexicans called him Herrero because it meant "the smith". He was called by his own people Atsidi Sani, or "the old smith".
Atsidi Sani's sons, Big Black, Red Smith, Little Smith and Burnt Whiskers, also became silversmiths and so launched the Navajo silversmithing practice.
In 1864, most Navajo were forced on the infamous 470-mile "Long Walk" to Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner), New Mexico, where 9,022 people were imprisoned by 1865. There, Atsidi Sani asked government agents for metalsmithing tools so he could teach his people a valuable trade. In 1868 when the survivors returned to the Navajo reservation, they took those tools with them. From this core group the art of silversmithing spread. Silver coins were melted with a blowtorch and buffalo-hide bellows to make the first Navajo silver jewelry. Hammers and chisels were their first tools. They later added decorative stamp work by adapting leather-stamping tools.
In the early years, Navajo silver work was an art practiced by very few smiths. Their work was highly valued and sought after by fellow Navajos as well as Hopis and Zunis. Objects of silver began to have a great effect upon the lives of those desert peoples. Silver jewelry became a symbol of a man's wealth and standing in the community. A "smith" was a respected man and enjoyed prestige given to few others.
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The first observers of Navajo smithing specifically mention the manufacture of buckles, buttons and clasps of silver for their garments. Today there is a tremendous array of bracelets, rings, pins, necklaces, belts, teaspoons, etc. fashioned into a thousand and one elaborate designs and set with turquoise and stones of all colors and sizes.
However, basically there were but a few forms out of which this great diversity grew. The original forms of all the silver work manufactured by the Navajo were relatively simple. These were objects that spread from the Plains Indians into the Navajo area. These objects were made of thin, light metals, principally German silver (an alloy that contains no silver), brass and copper. These were rings, bracelets and hair plates, which in turn became conchas, worn by the Kiowa, Comanche, Dakota, Cheyenne, Ute, Pawnee, Osage, etc.
The concha belt is among the most striking products of the Navajo silversmith's art. Conchas (shells) as they were known in New Mexico, were large, oval or circular, silver brooch-like ornaments. Some of the Mexican bridles had silver conchas on the head stalls. Old Mexican bridle conchas used floral and geometric patterns. Hence the decorative elements that influenced the Navajo silversmiths. Good conchas represent much patient work with small, usually repeated, designs, struck one element at the time with a home-made die and a hand hammer. Originally these belts did not have a buckle, but were fastened with leather thongs. Most old belts today are equipped with buckles. Among the earliest buckles made by Navajo smiths are simple copies of harness buckles.
Bracelets are perhaps more common than any other product of the Navajo silversmith, except for finger-rings. They are almost without exception cuff-style. Early bracelets simply made of twisted wire were not uncommon. The other most common type was made from a flat sheet of silver in varying widths. Either type may be plain, or were often set with from one to thirty pieces of turquoise and more. In general, those bracelets with very simple die markings, or none at all, is indicative of age. Today, the variety of design exhibited in bracelets is amazing.
It has been written that the first setting of turquoise in silver by a Navajo occurred about 1880.
The original form of earrings made in silver were relatively few in number and simple in workmanship. Basically they were plain, unadorned circlets of silver or brass wire, with or without hollow silver beads fastened to them, or crescent shaped pieces of silver with hinged center sections and long tear drops terminating in small silver pomegranate shaped beads. Others were circles of silver wire, partially flattened and engraved or stamped with simple designs.
(Please read our article on "Squash Blossom" necklaces.)
Possibly the most elaborate of all the objects produced is the silver bridle. They are exceedingly ornamental and the good examples represent a high degree of skill in design and craftsmanship in execution.