How To Buy German Silverwork

Like any piece of jewelry, German silver pieces need to have quality workmanship, be attractive, and be comfortable to wear. However, since these are American Indian-style products and an art form they have other characteristics as well.

by Barry Hardin

Vol. 40 No. 5 Issue 279, Reprinted with permission of Whispering Wind Magazine


The growing interest in Straight dancing has led to an increased amount of German silver jewelry and accessories for sale in today’s market. Women also are drawn to the Southern Plains style of dress, which includes concho belts and earrings made from this metal. However, like all Indian-style craft items – not to mention jewelry in general—there are differences from one product to the next, one maker to another. This article will discuss what the knowledgeable buyer should look for when it comes to purchasing German silver jewelry.

What is “German silver”? This metal, also known as nickel silver, is an alloy of various percentages of nickel, zinc, and copper. Though it polishes and shines like sterling silver, it contains no silver. Also, it is a much harder material than sterling. German silver (which we will sometimes refer to as just “silver” in this article) is the metal of choice for making Plains style clohing accessories, whether they are Southern or Northern Plains items.

For the buyer, it is important to know about the history of German silver work to fully appreciate the characteristics that are reflected in better, modern examples. Like any of the American Indian crafts, German silver pieces made today represent a continuing legacy.

History of German silver

The literature (Mooney 1898; Hanson 1979) agrees that German silver in sheet form was not available in quantity until the mid-1800s. By that time, a process had been developed in Germany that allowed it to be produced economically in sheet form. At the Kiowa Sun Dance held during the summer of 1866,—and since known by Kiowas as the “Flat Metal Sundance”—a white trader brought sheets of German silver to the camp as a trade item. (Fig. 1) From that time forward, Indians on both the Southern and Northern Plains learned how to make items for themselves, such as armbands, concho belts, and pectorals. The Southern Plains people had seen Mexican silver smiths at work, and from them, acquired coin silver hairplates and other items during the 1700s and early 1800s. (Fig. 2) Also, blacksmiths were sometimes furnished to the tribes as part of treaty agreements (Ewers 1958; Hagen 1990; Unrau 1971), and Indians were able to observe these men as they performed metal work.

How To Buy German Silverwork

Fig. 1 (above left): Image from the Sett’-an Calendar: Kiowa Sun Dance 1866
Fig. 2 (above right): Southern Plains man by Richard Petri ca. 1850
Fig. 3 (below); Early Pectoral in the Oklahoma History Museum.

How To Buy German Silverwork
How To Buy German Silverwork

Julius Caesar, Pawnee Silversmith

Cold chisels, files, tin snips, and steel pointed compasses were easily obtained during this period, and, along with axe and hatchet heads, these formed the basic tools of the Indian German silver smith. However, the work of that period was crude by today’s standards. (Fig.3) Various items were chiseled out or snipped from the sheet metal, then filed, and, sometimes, decorated with concentric circles (made by using the compass) or basic rocker engraving. (Fig. 4) Little if any stamping was done, especially to the degree seen on pieces made in the last 75 years.

How To Buy German Silverwork
How To Buy German Silverwork

Both men and women wore German silver items until approximately 1890, when this stylistic fade all but disappeared. It was also about this time that the “peyote religion” became important, and Southern Indian smiths adapted by making German silver jewelry pieces with peyote religious symbolism and association. (Fig. 5) As the 20th century progressed, powwows became more public and popular, and Southern Plains tribes once again incorporated German silver items into their dance clothing.

Throughout the 1900s, there was an increasing number of Indian silver smiths. They were predominantly men of Southern Plains tribes, as well as Prairie smiths whose early influences came from trade silver they had obtained in their past and subsequently learned to make themselves. Many of the early smiths made jewelry mostly for their relatives, but a few also produced pieces for sale or trade. In 1940, a Pawnee smith named Julius Ceasar started Ceasar’s Metalcrafts as a business to produce German silver work for sale. (Fig. 6) Julius probably was

the first Indian smith to use a hallmark which he stamped into the back of his work identifying him as the maker, a custom which he probably did not begin until the 1960s (Cooley 2011). (Fig. 7a & 7b) Since then, a small percentage of Indian silver smiths have marked their work with their own hallmarks, but the majority of silver smiths have not (Hardin 2011).

German Silver Work Today

In the American Indian community, German silver jewelry continues to be produced, though by a smaller number of craftsmen than in the first half of the 1900s. Today, Oklahoma is the center of production, with only a few Northern Plains artists practicing this type of work. It is apparent, however, that many contemporary native smiths are self-taught, with little or no mentoring. The quality of work, on average, is fair, at best. Pieces by some makers show a lack of appreciation for the “Southern Plains Style” with regards to design elements and stamps used. Figure 8 is not typical but is among the poorest of examples. A big obstacle for any beginning silver smith is acquiring a sufficient number of stamping tools, most of which must be hand-made. (Fig. 9) Today in Oklahoma, pieces are often found stamped with large stamps obtained from suppliers of Southwest American Indian jewelry products, where the stamps are made in-house by Native Americans. (Fig. 10) Although a few of the stamps can be used for either style, most are more appropriate for Southwest work, not Plains work.

While several contemporary smiths produce work of less than ideal quality, there are exceptions: Arguably the best in the business are Bruce Caesar, son of Julius, and Bruce’s son, Adam. Based out of their home in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Bruce and family are prolific makers, producing work for both the retail and wholesale markets. Further, they have taken the art to even higher levels than the distinctive, bold work of Julius, as evidenced by the very fine lines and tiny cutouts they incorporate into many pieces, along with original design concepts. (Fig. 11 & 13) It is worthy to note that Bruce often holds classes where he introduces Native American young people to the art of German silver production. Other notable German silver workers are Kugee and “Son” Supernaw and Don Secondine. All of these smiths sign their work with either hallmarks or cursively written signatures done with an electric pencil.

The peyote religion (now known as the Native American Church) is practiced by most tribes, to some degree (LaBarre 1969; Swan 1999). For example, it is estimated that approximately 50% of Navajos are peyotists. Not surprisingly, we see Native American Church associated jewelry being produced by Navajo silver smiths, mostly in sterling, but sometimes in German silver. Raye Johnson, Navajo, is generally acknowledged as the best of the Southwestern artists producing jewelry today in the peyote style (Cooley 2010). (Fig. 12)

How To Buy German Silverwork

About Crazy Crow Trading Post Silverwork

In 1970, Crazy Crow Trading Post started by selling German silverwork at powwows, and today, Native American Plains-style silverwork is still an important item produced in house by Crazy Crow's silversmiths. We offer many styles of silverwork that fill the needs of powwow dancers and Native American Church members. Our roach spreaders, tie slides, armbands, concho belts and more are essential items for all dancers. Our earrings & pins look great both on and off the dance floor and with over 40 years experience, we produce only the highest quality work in authentic, traditional designs.

About Barry Hardin

While Barry Hardin is experienced in a variety of Native American and other early-American craft techniques, he specializes in reproducing German silverwork in the Southern and Northern Plains traditions. Barry started The American Indian Room in Dallas in 1974, then soon became a business associate of Rex Reddick, owner of Crazy Crow Trading Post. Together, they worked to develop Crazy Crow Trading Post during the 1970s. In 1980, Barry went on his own and became increasingly active as a participant at Oklahoma powwows as a straight dancer, as well as a buckskinner in the Mountain Man hobby. He is a former member of the American Mountain Men, Comanche Gourd Clan, Comanche War Dance Society, and was one of the founding members of the Lone Star War Dance Society, where he currently serves as Crier. Barry is a published author and editor of several books in the American Indian field, and he continues studying and researching American Indian lore.

Books & Articles by Barry Hardin

Knife & Tomahawk Throwing
The Plains Warbonnet: Its Story & Construction
How to Buy German Silverwork

Select German Silverwork from Crazy Crow Trading Post

The items below will provide a good idea of the German Silverwork offered by Crazy Crow Trading Post. View All German Silverwork

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