Hopi Overlay

Hopi Overlay incorporates ancient Puebloan designs into striking pieces of jewelry—including bracelets, pendants, belt buckles, bolo ties, pins, and earrings. In overlay technique, a design is cut out of one piece of silver, which is then laid over an uncut piece of silver; the two are then soldered together—thus the term “overlay.” Silver overlay was introduced to the Hopi in the late 1930s through a project initiated by Museum of Northern Arizona Co-founder Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton and MNA Curator of Art Virgil Hubert in collaboration with two Hopi artists, Fred Kabotie and Paul Saufkie. Their goal was to develop a commercially sought-after jewelry style that would be uniquely Hopi. Hubert drew preliminary designs for the technique, which was then refined by Kabotie and Saufkie.

Five main steps are required in the overlay process. In the first step the artist cuts out a design from the top sheet, and in the second step solders this sheet to a bottom sheet of the same shape and size. In the third step the bottom sheet is “matted” (lightly tooled with a subtle textured pattern). The entire piece is then oxidized (tarnished), which darkens the silver. In the finishing step the outer surface is buffed; this removes tarnish from the surface so that only the matted lower sheet, in contrast, remains dark. The resulting piece appears to have been created from a single piece of silver. Two types of finishes are produced today—high polish and satin. Satin is the more traditional finish, created manually by buffing the surface with fine steel wool. High polish, a shiny, almost mirror-like finish, is produced using a buffer wheel.

Among the Hopi, traditional designs reflect an iconography that has evolved through centuries of expression in Puebloan ceramics, basketry, textiles, painting and rock art. Balance coupled with repetition, so characteristic of Hopi art, is seen throughout Hopi silverwork.

Although Hopi silver overlay was at first not embellished with turquoise, coral and other stones, many Hopi silversmiths do incorporate stonework into their overlay designs today. A number of Hopi silversmiths also have begun creating tufa cast jewelry and, most interesting, using tufa cast pieces in overlay. (Tufa is a soft, porous, rock made of calcium carbonate.) Additionally, in very recent years other tribes have been experimenting with overlay technique.