What Exactly Is “Old Pawn Jewelry”?

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“A Navajo trading post is an institution peculiar unto itself. It is a most extraordinary experience to sit around a hearth fire, intently listening in, to absorb all of the interesting bed time stories, when suddenly, without knocking, a Navajo medicine man, Hoskinini Begay [sic], enters, gravely shakes hands with Mrs. Wetherill, and then joining the circle sits by the fire to look and listen.  It is a pleasantly strange mixture of the old civilization and the new.” 

– Tsaybega, aka Muriel B. Clock, circa 1934

A peer in the old pawn jewelry trade has described the phrase “Old Pawn” this way:

“As used in the pawn trade, the terms “old” or dead” pawn have absolutely nothing to do with the age or vintage of any particular item. A pawn item goes “dead” or becomes “old” when the person who pawned the item does not pay off their loan on the item in the stated amount of time mandated by state law. At the point the item goes dead it becomes the property of the pawnbroker, who then usually offers it for sale to the public. Native American jewelry can be and is pawned in any and all vintages including brand new for a variety of reasons.”

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Old Navajo trading post located on world famous Route 66 in Arizona, circa 1930s – 40s

Others in the vintage jewelry trade have also used the term “old pawn” to describe Native American jewelry made, bought and sold during the early to mid 20th century period which was the height of fine Native American jewelry making in the American southwest. Some refer to this period [ Early 1900s through late 1970s] as the “Fred Harvey” era. When Native American families first learned their jewelry craft from the Mexicans and the Spanish in the mid 1800s, they eventually accumulated and displayed the personal wealth of their families by making and trading fine quality sterling silver and gemstone jewelry: rings, cuffs, necklaces, pendants, belts and earrings. Many of the earliest known photos of the Navajo show the men and women of the tribes proudly wearing their family’s personal jewelry collection, which was often the sole source of wealth and a means of exchange for these families over generations.

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Sioux Indian chief’s daughter stands in the doorway of a trading post. Note the long silver Concho belt she wears, which goes all the way to her feet! An authentic belt like this one would fetch thousands of dollars today in pristine condition.

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Early 1930s era southwest trading post – Native American children play in the foreground

The wealth of a Native American family in the late 1800s to the early 1900s was literally stored in their own personal hand crafted fine jewelry, which was handed down from one generation to the next, as well as the rare special design skills on how to make it.

This is the origin of the legacy established by some of the great Native American family names in jewelry design, which collectors still seek today: Yazzie, Gordon, Reeves, Hoskie, Delgarito, Tsosie, Tsinnie and many more.

When or if a family fell upon hard times, such as drought or other reasons for crop failure, often part of the family jewelry treasure was taken into a local trading post and often literally exchanged for much needed dry goods, saddles, plows, seeds, even farm animals or fresh horses. You can see how great wealth might have been accrued over time by the owners of these original southwest trading posts, as often was the case, the Native American family could not always afford to retrieve valued jewelry which had been traded for needed supplies under duress.

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A Navajo warrior wears a hand crafted sterling silver “squash blossom” necklace. His name was K’aa lani (aka Many Arrows). Photo circa 1903

The very origin of the modern day “pawn shop” as we now know it can be traced to these original southwest American trading posts, where gold and silver coins or fine Native American made jewelry was literally used as a means of exchange to keep the family going until better times returned.

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Ansel Adams took this dramatic portrait photo of a Navajo woman and her papoose. Note she is wearing a ring, a cuff and a “Concho tie”. Early 20th century.

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Early engraving of a scene in a southwest trading post as Native Americans wheel and deal over the counter with the owner

Today the surviving Native American made jewelry from this special era in American history has great collector value, and is appreciating in value presently at a faster rate than gold or silver bullion. Fine quality “investment grade” Native American made jewelry from the early and mid 20th century is in limited supply and is also in great demand.

Photos from the great era of Southwest Native American Trading Posts from  the mid 20th century

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A recent black and white photo of the world famous Hubbell Trading Post in Arizona, founded in 1876 in Granada Arizona. See http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/hutr/adhi/adhi1.htm

Photo and description cited from Sacredplacesotherspaces.blogspot.com: “This is the original Hogback Trading Post and not atypical as to what happens when these places are left behind. People come searching for anything of value and before long the place is in ruins. You have to look carefully for this place. It closed in 1969, the new Hogback is across Highway 64.”

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The tradition of the Native American trading post is still thriving in many western states. Photo of a flourishing “modern era” trading post, located in Billings Montana.

Tags: photos old trading posts, the history of Native American trading posts, southwest Americana, Native American history, Navajo old pawn jewelry, Hubbel trading post, Cherokee Blue Trading Post, investment grade Native American collectible jewelry

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