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)