Just when you think you’ve got your favorite artist’s hallmark figured out, along comes a piece of jewelry that looks like their work, but the signature doesn’t match. There are several reasons why Native American silversmiths may change their hallmark stamp.
One common reason to change a stamp is breakage. Even though the stamps are made of steel, they are very small and take a lot of pounding – literally! The edges of the design have to remain sharp and strong to impress a good stamp into the metal. Alvin Vandever recently noticed the “V” stamp that he uses for his “AV” hallmark was wearing down. He was able to replace that stamp with the same size and shape “V”, but other artists may not be so fortunate. Hence, the type style may look slightly different from earlier pieces. Again, compare the style of jewelry as closely as you do the stamp itself to get a good ID on an artist. Alvin has gifted his worn “V” stamp to the proud owner of the last piece marked with the old stamp.
Another reason for a hallmark change is a name change. Many Native American silversmiths are women, and will sign differently or order a new stamp to show their marriage (or divorce). I’ve seen Zuni artist Arvina Sandoval Pinto engrave “A. Pinto”, “Arvina S.” and “Arvina Sandoval”, depending on her marital status at the time the piece was made (as well as on the amount of room available on the back of the piece!). But comparing her exquisite cluster work leaves no doubt that the artist is one and the same.
Simple initial stamps selected by a beginner may give way to a customized stamp as the artist becomes more successful. Navajo storyteller artist Benny Benally used to use a simple “BB” stamp; he now uses a custom stamp with his full name. However, his design style of stick-straight figures and appealing swayback horses are a sure sign that both pieces pictured are his.
Our resident artist Henry Yazzie has a younger brother who is also a fine silversmith. Teddy Yazzie will work in our shop at times, bringing his tools in with him. Once, he forgot his hallmark stamp and had to make do with recreating it using a straight line stamp. The hallmark is not exactly the same, but the two-tone contemporary style of the piece is definitely Teddy’s. Sometimes, an artist may forget to stamp a piece during construction, so will switch to using an engraved signature upon finishing the piece.
There are other reasons why a hallmark may not obviously or definitively identify the artist of a particular piece, but if you keep your eyes on both the signature and the style, your hard work and research will pay off!
Are there any Native American jewelry hallmarks that have you stumped?