About Sterling and Other Silver
Native American Silversmithing Styles, and Methods

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Sterling Silver Navajo Miniature KettleSterling Silver Navajo BeadsNot All Silver Is Equal

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Pure silver is generally too soft for jewelry making, so it is combined (alloyed) with other metals.

Sterling Silver: Sterling silver and is stamped as "sterling" or ".925" which indicates that it is 92.5 percent pure silver. By law sterling silver must contain no less than 92.5% fine silver with the remainder being any other metal. The other 7.5 percent of the material is comprised of alloys, usually copper (which is what causes sterling silver to tarnish).

Traditionally precious metals and jewelry weights are listed in grams or Troy ounces. There are approximately 31.1 grams in one Troy ounce.

Sterling Silver Navajo Beads

Mexican Silver:

Mexican Silver (NOT Alpaca, see below) is usually 95% Silver and 5% Copper. After World War II, for jewelry and objects made in Taxco, Mexico, the Mexican government issued an assay mark guaranteeing the purity to be .925 or higher. This mark is referred to as the "spread eagle" mark. The original mark did look like an eagle, but with modifications over the years, the mark was simplified. The number inside the mark is a workshop or city designation. In 1979, this mark was abandoned in favor of a series of registry letters and numbers assigned to individuals and workshops. Mexican silver is softer than sterling silver so bends more easily . . . which can be either a good or a bad thing.

Coin Silver:

When used in association with vintage Native American jewelry, this refers to the alloy that resulted when pre-1965 US silver coins were melted down to reuse in jewelry making. Coin silver made from US coins has less silver than sterling silver (90% compared to 92.5% in sterling silver) but that doesn’t necessarily make coin silver jewelry less desirable. In fact, because coin silver jewelry is usually older and hand hammered, it might be more valuable than if it were made of sterling silver. Vintage Mexican coins often had a silver content above that of US coins, therefore was softer and easier to hand hammer and preferred by some old-time silversmiths. Some Mexican coin silver jewelry will test as high as sterling silver.


Alpaca is a term that is often stamped on Mexican (and German) pieces and sometimes it is called Alpaca Silver but it contains no silver at all. Alpaca is usually composed of 65% copper, 18% nickel and 17% zinc. It is similar to German Silver and Nickel Silver (see below).

Argentium® Sterling Silver:

A registered and patented alloy of sterling silver, copper and a small amount of the element germanium, developed in 1984. This alloy has excellent tarnish resistance and requires minimal maintainance to remain looking like new. This phenomenon is a result of a transparant layer of germanium oxide thats forms on the surface of the metal and slows the formation of silver sulphide, or tarnish. Tarnish is formed when sulfur reacts with the copper in sterling silver to form silver sulphide. This sulfur can come from the air, perfume, deodorant or skin, among other sources. An occasional wash and rinse and/or wipe with a soft cotton cloth is all that's needed to keep an object made from Argentium Sterling Silver in pristine condition.

German Silver:

See Nickel Silver below.

Nickel Silver:

Nickel silver, also called German silver, is an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, but contains no silver. Navajos occasionally used it in place of coin silver and sterling silver, usually in earlier work. This alloy is very hard and does not tarnish like sterling silver and costs much less. Nickel silver was sold in flat sheets and the Navajo originally obtained this metal from their neighbors, the Utes, who worked it in the plains style of metalwork. Mostly tribes of the plains, prairies, and Great Lakes areas worked in nickel silver.

Some people are allergic to nickel and get what is called "nickel itch" when contacting it.

Silver Overlay :

This can have several meanings. When used in high-end tack accents, belt buckles and so on, silver overlay is made by mechanically bonding Sterling Silver Navajo Beadsa layer of sterling silver over a thicker base metal, usually nickel. This creates a metal with the qualities of sterling at a lower price. Sterling overlay should be thick enough to allow the silversmith to make his engraving cuts in the sterling layer without cutting through to the base metal below. But in Native American jewelry, silver overlay refers to 100% Sterling Silver, both layers are sterling silver. The top layer is cut out with a jeweler's saw and placed on a solid sterling silver base. The Hopi Indians excel at Sterling Silver overlay.

Silver plate:

Silver plating is the least expensive method of utilizing silver in decorative work. To silver plate, a base metal is electrostatically charged, so that a very thin layer of silver adheres to the base. The silver is usually applied as a liquid and is at approximately 7 millionths of an inch thick. Silver plate cannot be hand engraved, but it's often applied over design cuts made in the base metal.

Silversmithing StylesSterling Silver Navajo Beads

Navajo -

The Navajo were the first silversmiths. They commonly design jewelry around a stone's natural shape. When they do inlay, it is bolder than Zuni inlay and usually has silver between the inlaid stone pieces (called "channel inlay").

Zuni -

The Zuni are known as stonesmiths that cut stones to fit into a precise geometric pattern or design. They tend to use four traditional colors:

Sterling Silver Navajo BeadsBlue - turquoise
Red - Coral
Black - Jet or Onyx
White - Opal or Mother of Pearl

Zuni inlay tends to be more complex than Navajo, with more cuts and patterns. They usually don't use silver between the inlaid pieces but produce "stone on stone" inlays. The Zuni also produce meticulous Needlepoint (narrow stones pointed on both ends) and Petit Point (any other small cut stone shape such as oval, teardrop etc.) pieces, often in clusters. Most snake designs are done by the Zuni.

Sterling Silver Navajo BeadsHopi -

The Hopi are known as master silversmiths who design overlay pieces mostly of solid silver with a cutout design on top of the main piece. The two pieces are "sweated" together, that is heated so that they become one. The background piece is usually oxidized (darkened) and etched (texturized) with hashmarks. Two characteristics of Hopi work are overlay and minimal use of stones.


Silver Manufacturing Methods


As the name implies, metal manipulation is done by hand, from cutting to polishing and engraving. Labor always increases cost, so this is the most expensive manufacturing method and also the most desired by consumers. Handmade accessories will typically have slight yet charming variations in shape and finish.


This is a term that refers to an item that is partially handmade and partially machine-made. For example, some silver Navajo beads have machine cut pieces that then are soldered and hand strung by a Navajo Indian craftsman. These are considered benchmade.


Metal is machine-manipulated for cost savings and uniformity. Industrial presses cookie-cut shapes, which are then embossed by hydraulic machines. For modestly priced goods, machine-made pieces are often stamped from nickel or a proprietary alloy, then plated with sterling silver or other metal for a shiny finish.


Sterling Silver Navajo BeadsMost modern Indian jewelry is stamped "Sterling" and is signed or stamped with a hallmark by the artist. However a lack of hallmarks, initials, or signatures doesn't mean it is not authentic. In the past, most reservation-made Indian jewelry was not signed and had no hallmark.


Read about Silver Care and Cleaning

See our selection of Authentic Native American Jewelry


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