Monday, May 21, 2007

Two Cents, For What It's Worth

Two cents, for what it’s worth
By Joyce Zakierski Simmons

Most postage stamps honor personalities or events in history. The two-cent stamp first issued in 2005 when first-class rates jumped from 37 to 39 cents celebrated Navajo jewelry.

The illustration of a squash blossom necklace with handmade “squashes” and a naja from the First Nation is a rarity among stamp designs. The Postal Service has re-issued the Navajo stamp due to another postage increase.

It joins a 2004 Canadian issue as the only stamps to commemorate jewelry making. The reissued stamp shows the painted detail of a Navajo silver and turquoise necklace with sand-cast “squash blossoms” set with polished blue turquoise nuggets.

Navajo history is one of the notable success stories of Native American people. The Navajo traced their originas from Northern Alaska more than seven centuries ago. A small group of men and women traveled through Northwestern Canada to the Southwest corner of the US. In the late 15th century, the Navajo nation encountered Spanish colonizers who introduced them to livestock and they learned farming from the nearby Pueblo communities. Exquisite silversmithing, now a Navajo tradition, was likely learned from Mexican silversmiths who learned from the Spanish.

There are two general categories of Native American jewelry: metalwork and beadwork. Early Native metalwork was fairly simple. It involved hammering and etching copper into pendants or earrings and fashioning copper and silver into beads.

The ornate “baroque style,” squash-blossom necklace derives from the naja or najahe, Navajo for crescent. This crescent-shaped silver ornament is of Moorish derivation. It originally was an iron forehead pendant ornament on horse bridles of the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 1500’s and 1600’s. It evolved into the centerpiece which hangs from squash blossom necklaces. The crescent brought from Spain reflects early Moorish conquests and the occupation of Spain, but it became associated with crop fertility ceremonials of the agricultural cycle. Tracing it back before the Moorish occupation it was an amulet to ward off the evil eye. Earlier still, found as boar’s tusks hanging point to point, it decorated a Roman Legionnaire’s stall.

The squash blossom derived from a pomegranate flower used by Spanish and Mexican silversmiths as trouser and jacket ornament. The pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and abundance while the naja is a symbol of good luck as a hand amulet form. Both designs represent the cultural migration of an ancient Near Eastern image, traveling via the Jews to the Muslims and via the Moors of North Africa to Spain and the Americas.

(Editor’s note: Joyce Simmons is a regular contributor to the Vintage Fashion Costume Jewelry Magazine, a quarterly published subscription magazine for jewelry collectors. Her collections are at the Hamburg Antique Center, One Main St., Hamburg. She is coordinator of the annual jewelry show at the Lake Mohawk Country Club)

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