A hallmark can be said to be the signature on Native American jewelry art. Hallmarks are important because they can allow Native American jewelry to be identified by artist. Just as the public recognizes the value of a signed painting or sculpture, hallmarks have come to be valued in the Native American jewelry field. Today it is very rare for Native American jewelry not to have the symbol of the artist. Though it has not always been the case, people now expect Native American jewelry to be marked.
Some, like those in Zuni, will use "electric pencils" to sign their names. At least they will usually put their last name and Zuni, N.M. Hallmarks, though, are usually impressions made by holding a stamp punch (or die) on the silver, and striking it with a hammer. This leaves a faint or deep mark. Their hallmarks can contain letters, pictures or symbols. Native American jewelry having hallmarks is expected today except on heishi or nugget necklaces. These necklaces do not have room to place hallmarks.
Early silversmiths did not place a hallmark on that vintage jewelry. For many their art was a part-time job that helped bring in income ,along with their fields and sheep. Many early artists also made their jewelry for themselves or family members. Sometimes the trading posts or stores who bought the jewelry would put their store mark on a piece. This was a kind of beginning of hallmarks, but not a guarantee of authenticity. Shops employed non Natives as well a Natives, so the artist was not necessarily Native American.
IN the late 1920s and early 1930s a few hallmarks were made by chisel marks. After World War II the use of hallmarks changed. Hopi and Navajo guilds were set up to aid silversmiths and jewelry makers. Sometimes several people did different things on the same piece. However these guilds did encourage the use of hallmarks as a form of signature for the work sold. The hallmark was placed, along with the guild stamp, on the jewelry. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the guilds continued to encourage artists to stamp their work. Artists, who lived near larger cities and sold their jewelry near train stations and other public areas, began putting hallmarks on their work. In the 1970s collectors wanting to know the artist, as well as the tribe of the artist, provided more encouragement for hallmarks.
There are some drawbacks to using hallmarks to determine authenticity, on the work of a particular artist. Over the years information as to which artist used a mark, can be lost. Some artists use their initials or even a single letter as their hallmark. Naturally several artists may duplicate the same hallmark. Some hallmarks are not readable. Sometimes an artist changed their hallmark during their life, or a family member may have used the same mark on their work. Also, counterfeiters sometime copy hallmarks on their foreign-made jewelry. To determine the background of a piece a person is interested in then, it is good to consult a reputable dealer. They will also look at provenance, the style of the piece, quality of workmanship, and the materials used, to determine authenticity. Good books can also help.
Despite shortcomings however, hallmarks are important. They allow Native American jewelry, to be identified by the artists who deserve to be recognized. Hallmarks have had an interesting development in the history of Native American art. When you see a hallmark on your jewelry treasures, remember that fascinating history. A hallmark will deepen a person's appreciation for their Native American jewelry art!