Metalworking has a long history, particularly among indigenous peoples. Creating designs by etching them into precious metals was one way of adding cultural images to items of adornment. Today, the skill of stamp work continues through Native American jewelry silversmiths. These artists used skills, techniques, and tools handed down through generations to create beautiful pieces of jewelry that reflect their culture and their artistic nature.
With the coming of the Spanish conquerors to their homeland, Navajo and Pueblo people were able to observe ways of working with silver that the Spanish used. The Navajo first adopted the designs of the Spanish, then began to create their own pieces with their own designs. Coins were an initial material to be hammered and engraved with these images. These pieces could then be used to create necklaces, bracelets, belts, and other items.
After the tragedy of the Long Walk, and their subsequent restrictions to the reservation, items like these would become trade ware, a means of using their skill to increase their income. Navajo silversmiths passed the techniques on to the Zuni and other Pueblo peoples, allowing each group to create their own unique styles.
Creating a piece of quality jewelry from stamp work requires a great deal of skill. Small metal stamps form the tools for etching the design into the silver. Stamps are created with individual designs on them, to be etched around the border or used as the center image. Many silversmiths have passed stamps down in their families, allowing each generation to continue a favorite design or pattern.
Silver sheets are cut and shaped then placed on a block. Stamps are placed on the silver according to the desired design. With a hammer strike, the design is imprinted onto the silver. It can take a while to complete a design, as stamps are generally small. The artist must have the skill to ensure each imprint is the right depth and know how to place each stamp so that the completed design comes out as it is supposed to. Mistakes are not something that can be undone, so a piece with a perfect design is indeed a work of art. The recessed areas of the design may be oxidized to add contrast to the piece.
As with all types of handcrafted Native American jewelry, stamp work reflects the hours of detail the artist puts into each piece. They are also a reflection of culture, through the designs etched on them. That reflection makes a piece of stamp work an heirloom of great value, worthy of being added to any collection.