Unfortunately, stones can fall out of vintage Native American jewelry pieces. If a stone feels loose in a setting or comes out entirely, this doesn’t mean the piece is broken or defective. In fact, this can show you that the jewelry is truly vintage handmade Native American! The crafting techniques used by authentic Native artists are different than most other silversmiths, so it is important to understand how and why a stone may fall out.
In the old days, Native American silversmiths did not use any glue or epoxy to hold the stones in place. Their means to acquire quality jeweler’s epoxy were limited, so they had to make do. They found that a housing bezel such as “sawtooth” bezel does a great job of holding the stone in place, with no glue required! The little teeth of the bezel fold in and keep the stone firmly in place. However, this also means that if the bezel is disturbed (like when a bracelet cuff is flexed to fit better) the stone may come loose.
If you own a piece of vintage Native jewelry, this is important to remember: Usually, the stone’s bezel is the only thing holding the stone in! This means that any adjustment to the bracelet band can open the bezel, making the stone fall out or even break! Squeezing the bracelet around the wrist may make the bracelet smaller to fit your wrist but it also puts strain on the stone and stones housing. Always make sure you have a professional make any adjustments, do NOT try to adjust vintage pieces yourself.
There is one other major reason a stone may fall out: getting the jewelry wet. Many vintage artists used sawdust to level the stone inside the bezel and behind the stone to keep it tight. This traditional method was very common among the Navajo artisans, especially. If the bracelet becomes submerged in water, the liquid will seep under the stone and because sawdust is wood it can swell and expand. This can put pressure on the stone and housing pushing the stone all the way out of the bezel! So be careful to not fully submerge any vintage Native jewelry piece, in water or cleaning solution. If you feel the need to clean a vintage piece, be careful not to get any liquids in the stone housing.
Many contemporary Native silversmiths do use epoxy to hold in stones. However, some modern artists use the classic techniques, as a way to honor the artists who came before. If you’re buying directly from an artist or a reputable dealer, ask about the stone setting.