Jewelry Vignettes: Black Smiths

So its Black History month.You might not know it, but there have been Black metalsmiths, particularly silversmiths and goldsmiths in America since the 18th century.  None of this should be surprising given the extensive centuries old history of blacksmithing and bronze work on the African continent. We should be aware of the beautiful wrought iron work from South Carolina, especially Charleston. And yes we all know of, or at least should know of Winifred Mason and the Smiths, as I like to call Art and Bill.

Winnie Mason had a Greenwich Village atelier and was an active jeweler during the 1940s.  Her handcrafted copper based jewelry exemplified the Arts and Crafts and Modernist styles prevalent at the time. All of her pieces, highly esteemed and collectible, were one-of-a-kind and after travelling to Haiti on a scholarship, she began to incorporate Voodoo motifs. Mason taught jewelry making and metalsmithing in Harlem after graduating with degrees in English and Teaching. She traveled to Haiti on scholarship to study local motifs and culture and married there. She sold her work through Lord and Taylor and other NYC department stores and was the first Black jeweler to sell her work commercially. Billie Holiday happened to be one of her clients. 


Winifred Mason Chenet – Brass and copper cuff

One of Winnie Mason’s employees for a while was Arthur Smith.   Art Smith, the iconic and highly collectible Black jeweler was born in Cuba in 1917. He also studied under Mason.  

Arthur Smith, Ellington Necklace, 1962

He was part of the modernist movement in American art jewelry and maintained a studio in Greenwich Village in the 1960s.   Plenty has already been written about Art Smith and there are many sources to follow.

Perhaps less known is Bill Smith, a Coty American Fashion Critics award winning Black American jewelry designer active in the 1960s and 1970 was considered a genius. He became Head Designer and VP for Richelieu.  He  was the jewelry designer for the Broadway production of Coco about the life of Coco Chanel and produced jewelry for Cartier, Anne Klein and others.

Bill Smith Earrings, Author’s Collection

But there have been other, even more obscure Black jewelers chasing, raising, setting, designing, carving, piercing, filing, casting and fabricating in America.  Evidence of some of the earliest instances date to the middle of the 1700s.

One of the better documented Black silversmiths is that of Abraham, an enslaved man who worked for renowned Charleston silversmith, Alexander Petrie in South Carolina during the mid-1700s. After his owner’s retirement, in 1768 Abraham was sold in a bidding war to another goldsmith.  The spoon and coffee pot pictured below bear the AP mark on them and although AP is the hallmark for Alexander Petrie, it is unclear whether the items were made by him or indeed by Abraham under his “employ”.

Alexander Petrie (AP) Spoon
Alexander Petrie (AP) Coffee Pot

Anyone who has ever researched the history of Black Americans knows that classified ads are useful and increasingly accessible tools for discovering the existence of and for researching the transactional nature of the lives of enslaved Black Americans. Through these and other sources we may educate ourselves about all sorts of craftspeople who toiled in bondage as well as those who  worked as free people in colonial America. 

My first example of these ads comes from a database housed at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  The notation refers to an inventory taken from a deceased slave owner.  Among the decedent’s property is listed an enslaved silversmith named Limus. Limus lived in Charleston, South Carolina during a time when Black artisans were numerous and in high demand.   This entry dates back to 1743 and is the earliest I have yet encountered.

Using the new FreedomOntheMove.org site, a  database of fugitives from American slavery,  I found an ad in the New York Gazette, date May 8, 1758, in which we learn of a man named Jacob, who “understands the silversmith trade”.   Jacob ran away from his goldsmith enslaver and the ad implores the public to help him retrieve his property.  Another ad from the same paper, dated August 30, 1756 describes Duke, a fugitive who can work as a goldsmith.  This source also has 185 listings for fugitive blacksmiths.

For Sale, a Negro silversmith, Pennsylvania Gazette, July 5, 1770 – Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society

The third example is from the Pennsylvania Gazette, dated July 5, 1770.  The ad informs the reader about a jeweler who is liquidating the contents of his shop and planning to leave the province.  Among the unset stones, gold and silver he lists, also for sale, a Negro man who is by trade a silversmith.

We also have records identifying free Black silversmiths. One of the entries in the MESDA database refers to multiple persons of color listed in a Philadelphia directory as jewelers and silversmiths.  This entry dates to 1818. 

We can also find examples of he craftsmanship of these artisans. The spoons pictured here were made by Peter Brentzon, born in 1783, a free man working as a silversmith in Philadelphia and in the US Virgin Islands.

Peter Brentzon Spoons, MESDA

The jewelry trade is often not easy to enter.  Skills are acquired through expensive schooling or through many years of apprenticeship.  Learning the history of jewelry making by Black silversmiths and jewelers is no less daunting.  I hope to shed more light on our predecessors in the trade as this important research continues.

Main Sources:

https://MESDA.ORG

https://freedomonthemove.org/

http://www.adafca.org/events/black-and-white-all-mixed-together-the-hidden-legacy-of-enslaved-craftsmen/

Jewelry Vignettes – Hoppin John

No treatment of American food traditions and Southern, especially Black American cuisine can exclude black-eyed peas and rice, i.e.  Hoppin John.  Eaten on New Year’s Day ostensibly for good luck, the dish includes black eyed peas or field or crowder peas for some purists, and more often than not some inexpensive cut of pork.  (Pork is so important to Black American traditions that I will treat this subject in another jewelry vignette…stay tuned!).  The tradition dates back to Black folks being allowed the cheapest foods, which were in America grown for animal fodder, black eyed and other field peas among them.  However, these peas were also grown in West Africa and as such were part of traditional gastronomic cultures.

Hoppin John Earrings

As usual, resourceful people made a way out of no way and came up with a wonderful, nutritious and savory New World version of a traditional dish.  And for a reminder of how delicious  and satisfying they are, you can also wear them every day.  Go to www.leapingheart.com to grab a pair of Hoppin John Earrings.

So grab a bowl of Hoppin John to eat for good luck in the New Year and don’t forget your collards or other greens to represent paper money and some cornbread for gold.

Best wishes for a healthy and prosperous Happy New Year!

Jewelry Vignettes – Dogon Sun

The Dogon people living in the Bandiagara cliffs of western Mali have had a complete well defined cosmology and religion for centuries. 

Part of their religious expression, particularly for those of the elite classes within the groups, is wearing a pectoral commonly called a Dogon Sun. It is typically worn by wrapping a leather thong around it and attaching a cowrie or other shell.

Dogon Sun acquired by the author in 2018, est. 19th cent.

In the Dogon religion, the God Amma is said to have created an egg that cracked open and out of it spiraled the vast universe.  You can see the spirals on the radials emanating from the center of the pieces.  The Dogon belief system includes belief in the Nommo, the progenitors of the Dogon who were created out of the great spiraling.  They are believed to be amphibious and are pictured as half human and half fish.  One wonders whether this is part of the origins of the origin of the Mami Wata deity.  Read more below.

The Nommo

Jewelry Vignettes – Mami Wata

Leaping Heart Jewelry, Mami Wata Pendant 2016

The piece you see above welled up out of me before I knew what was happening.  I was wax carving and carving and carving and before I knew it, this piece appeared.  I instantly knew it was finished although I did not know what it was.  At first I thought it was a heart and then I thought it was influenced by modern sculpture. But none of that felt right.  Then I realized I was carving something deeply ingrained in the Diasporan psyche.  Long before contemporary commercial reinterpretations of Danish folklore, ( I carved this piece back in 2016), I had carved a symbol of Mami Wata, the mermaid’s tail. 

Dona Fish, Ovimbundu, Angola
Midcentury, Photo Don Cole

Mami Wata is a positive and powerful figure in African and African descendent religions and cultures.  A vain deity, often depicted with a mirror and a snake,  she is the bearer of good fortune and spiritual wellbeing. To some she is the bearer of fertility and guardian of all things jewelry related. (Now it all makes sense).

Yemaya, La Sirene

Her existence stems back to Dogon creation theory (the Nommo) and she is worshipped throughout the Caribbean and South America, particularly in Vodun (as  La Sirene, and also  associated with Erzulie) and in Santeria as Yemaya.

Jewelry Vignettes – The Clenched Fist

The closed hand is a powerful and polysemous symbol. It has multiple meanings for various regions and groups.  Whether the right hand or the left hand is closed, holding something, stylized or pointing, the clenched fist evokes powerful feelings or messages for the user. 

The clenched fist in the American context has been associated with the Black Power movement as spearheaded by Black Panthers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed the iconic photo from the 1968 Olympics, of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, American Track and Field Olympians, raising their clenched fists to symbolize unity and Black Power during the awards ceremony during the playing of the US national anthem, evoked both ire and pride within the US.  The clenched fist has been a symbol of power, resistance and solidarity for centuries.

John Carlos, Tommie Smith, 1968 Olympics in Mexico City

The clenched fist as a symbol of power and resistance to oppression was popularized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as early as 1920 in Oregon  and was also expressed as an anti-fascist salute during the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939).  The earliest known European depiction of a raised clenched fist meant to show resistance or solidarity is shown in  French painter, Honore Daumier’s  1860 painting, “The Uprising“ .

In the African context, many “port d’bonheur” or fetish statuettes from Central and West Africa are used to invoke power and destroy evil.  These figurines, nkisi or nkondo, have been created and ritually employed since at least the 1700s.   Implanted nails, blades and twigs are used to activate the spirits and make manifest the desires of the conjurers.  Statues deemed most powerful are those with a raised closed hand especially if carrying a weapon.

Nkonde from DR Congo (formerly Zaire)

Earlier manifestations of the power of the fist derive from pre-dynastic Egypt.  The two gods Horus and Anubis, posed kneeling and giving the salute of reverence and of resurrection (the Henu position) to the rising sun date back to 3100 BCE.

The clenched fist, is an ancient symbol of action, power, solidarity and praise.  It predates modern symbols of the Abrahamic religions.   While there are many more 19th and  20th century examples of the application  of this symbol, it is important to understand the ancient roots of it.

This is an ongoing work, Any mistakes are my own.

 Sources:

  1. British Museum, Collection Online Museum Number EA11498
  2. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=273331001&objectId=111576&partId=1#more-views
  3. Resurrection salute sign of the Ancient Egyptians and the 2 mysterious souls, Antoine, Gigal
  4. https://gigalinsights.com/2017/05/28/resurrection-salute-sign-of-the-ancient-egyptians-and-the-2-mysterious-souls/
  5. Nkisi figures of the lower Congo by Zdenka Volavkova – RAND AFRICAN ART
  6. Egyptian Mythology, A to Z, Remler, Pat
  7. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/daumier-honore/artworks/#pnt_4
  8. http://www.randafricanart.com/Bakongo_Nkondi_figure.html
  9. http://www.hierakonpolis-online.org/
  10. https://www.ancient.eu/Anubis/
  11. Henri A. Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods, University of Chicago Press 1978
  12. George Hart, The Routledge Dictionary Of Egyptian Gods And Goddesses, Routledge 2005
  13. https://www.iww.org/history
  14. http://peopleshistoryarchive.org/content/your-power-lies-organization
  15. The Fist Photos: on the polysemy of the fist, Seravalle, Francesca https://phmuseum.com/francesca_seravalle/story/the-fist-photos-on-the-polysemy-of-the-fist-d883b7a4f9
  16. Anubis, Upwawet, and Other Deities: Personal Worship and Official Religion , Terence DuQuesne

Jewelry Vignettes – Texture

This is the first in a series of musings on jewelry, culture, and adornment and well, basically anything and everything. I will call them Jewelry Vignettes.

Texture is an important characteristic of diasporic jewelry.  The Tuareg wedding bracelets below use granules and bosses to create texture and value to artistic effect. Texture influences Leaping Heart Jewelry just as it has informed global jewelry through the ages. Did you notice the geometric hallmark on the inside of the bracelet on the left? It is the mark of a proud craftsman.

Tuareg Wedding Bracelets purchased by the author in Timbuktu, Mali, 1997.

I am looking for a similar but subtle effect in my charm bracelet. I wanted to evoke the romantic imagery and sentiments of silvery moonlight in the desert, without the fatigue, hard work and desert sickness that comes from getting there! So I chose a bossing texture using 14k yellow and rose gold granules, a craggy texture to remind me of the dusty, rocky roads on the journey there, the irregular roundness of the hand made links and the mother of pearl to remind me of the moon on the desert sands. I used steel wool to bring out the soft gleam of sterling silver and did not, as I usually do in my work, apply liver of sulfur patination. I wanted that mesmerizing silver gleam.

Jewelry and adornments should be meaningful. One should have a reason to make or purchase and wear a piece of jewelry. Someone else’s concept of fast fashion is insufficient and to succumb to such notions is wasteful. Save the resources for something real, something to cherish. That’s all.

Charm Bracelet by Leaping Heart Jewelry

Slow Jewelry

I am smitten by the “slow” movement.  I have always had crunchy granola tendencies.  I  love birds and woodland creatures.  At our house, there is a chipmunk that feels free to scurry in through the open back slider door and help itself to tasty dog kibble and whatever else the dogs and kids leave everywhere.   It doesn’t bother me too much, so I just let it be.  I live in the woods and have given up on fighting back nature.  I have  transformed our property into a permaculture homestead, as best I could but landscaping is not an inexpensive endeavor and takes time.  I try to eat local and low on the food chain, but running the kids around for various sports and after-school activities unfortunately means, some fast food meals creep into my lifestyle.   I try to do my part to help save the planet, solar panels, cutting off lights, etc..etc.   After all, who doesn’t want to do their part to save the planet?  (Well, I can think of a few who don’t seem to care …but let’s  just move on.)    But for all my green efforts,  I work in an industry, that relies on mining the raw materials for its eye-catching and sparkly products.

The modern jewelry industry, like the fashion industry, produces new product at an alarming,  even wasteful rate.   I won’t be a jewelry snob and claim that there is a lot of crappy jewelry being made.   That wouldn’t be fair.   But no matter one’s tastes, there is simply too much consumption.  Economic development  is not unlimited.  There actually are limits to growth especially if you like trees, abundant species of animals, clean air, flowers and green spaces like I do.  I take comfort in knowing that the jewelry I make is respectful of the planet.  I use recycled materials when possible and I do not make a gazillion pieces that are going to wind up in a garbage bin or expending energy to be smelted.  I handmake each piece, so my process is necessarily “slow.”  You  will  not “see yourself coming”  because of mass prouction.   The jewelry I make is meant to last a long time and to be passed down through generations.  I am hoping it will not be wasted or be considered wasteful.  There are a lot of jewelry choices out there, but please consider  that from a resources allocation perspective, you can feel as good about purchasing my jewelry as I feel about making it.

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