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#ThrowbackThursday: A Fierce Fall Uprising

The calendar says autumn, but the winds say winter. We have had snow, flurries down here and accumulations on the peaks, for four or five days straight now.

Climate change has left Mother Earth and her offspring unsure of what to do at any given moment — whether the time for flowering has passed, blossoms left unborn by the drought, or whether to chance it at this late date after all.

The purple asters, at least, have chosen the latter: Their numbers are fewer, but those of brave spirit bloom defiantly in small strong bunches all around the land here, a fierce fall uprising that refuses to retreat in the face of an altered environment.

In choosing today’s throwback feature, I searched archives and memory for green, something in the color of the aspen leaves that even now refuse to capitulate entirely to winter’s approach. In the process, I came across this work from ten or twelve years ago, one that held the fading greens of fall in the staunch embrace of the season’s brightest flowers.

I had occasion to appreciate the connection yesterday; on the north side of the horses’ stalls, a few bunches have found their way through the earth beneath the ProPanel bars of the pen, branching off to straddle the bars and reach insistently for the autumn light. It made for an intensely colorful, passionately beautiful spot in an otherwise dull, arid landscape, and seemed to reinforce the notion that this was the piece that would belong to today.

It was one in a semi-regular, informal series of rings that Wings created mostly between 2006 and 2008. If memory serves, this one was summoned into being in 2006, but did not sell until 2008. At that time, he had a number of similar rings in inventory, all wrought in the blossom style that non-Native dealers label “cluster” designs. In Wings’s hands, they are, always and forever, flowering symbols of life.

Most often, though, he crafts such rings using turquoise cabochons of varying shades and shapes and sizes. Once in a great while he will choose a different stone (as he once did, memorably, using a collection of brilliantly translucent blue-green fluorite cabs). Occasionally, he will accent the turquoise with stones of other sorts, but it’s rare that other gems are the focus, as here.

This was a classic nine-stone ring, a pattern he often uses in both rings and earrings: a central center stone surrounded by eight cabochons, sometimes all identical, sometimes (as here) with four of one kind placed at the cardinal directions and four of another at the ordinal points. It’s an old traditional design, one long in use by Native smiths in this part of Indian Country, and far from being some nameless, faceless, inorganic clump of rock, it’s one that evokes the living beauty of the desert.

As always, the real work started with the silver, although I believe in this case that the design began with the stones.

Quite often, particularly in a creation process that includes multiple pieces and/or stages, Wings will have more than one such stage under way simultaneously. Silversmithing requires acid rinses and soaking baths, among other time-consuming processes, and so while he may begin with one portion of a piece, he will have another part of it in process too, and trade off as stages permit. Quite often with rings, the process begins with the band, but in this instance, I suspect it was the setting that came first, band second, and, of course, the setting of the stones third.

Such is usually the case with blossom designs, and necessarily so: Unless a silversmith uses all calibrated cabochons, the stones must be selected first to ensure that they will fit the bezels created on the backing of the overall setting. In this case, the cabochons were of three different sizes and two different shapes, necessitating a certain amount of preliminary design work before he could even think about the rest of the ring. The size of the overall setting also dictates, to some degree, the width of the band — the band should not be wider than the outer edges of the blossom setting, nor should it be out of proportion to the setting’s boldness — and so it becomes a natural starting point for such designs.

In this instance, Wings chose a single small teardrop-shaped cabochon for the center of the “flower.” It was a striking shade of soft but brilliant chartreuse, with tiny bits of golden-bronze and inky purple matrix here and there. Looking at it in the photo, it looks very much like some gaspeite specimens do, but it was labeled turquoise, and in life, it showed all the hallmarks of being Orvil Jack or one of its like: full of faustite, rendering the overall color a lemon-lime green, with fragmentary hints of chert and copper. It was, I believe, a cabochon from his personal collection of old stones, some of which had belonged to his father, others acquired over a lifetime of work. It made for an unusual look, and with the hints of yellow underlying the surface, the purple would turn out to be the perfect counterpoint.

Once the center was settled, Wings turned his attention to the “petal” stones. He chose four round, highly domed sugilite cabochons of medium size, as vibrantly purple as any amethyst but opaque, rather than translucent, giving them very nearly the exact hue of our purple asters of fall. These he would place at the cardinal directions around the inverted teardrop at the center. Lastly, he settled on four tiny round cabochons of dark green jade, its color deep and bright and fractured with tiny, icy occlusions of matrix. These would sit at the ordinal points.

He created a collection of nine saw-toothed bezels and soldered them securely into place in the proper positions. Then he cut the entire backing freehand, connecting one outer bezel to the next in an inwardly-scalloped edge pattern. Once the whole setting was free of the surrounding silver, bezels firmly in place, it was clear that the teardrop shape of the center stone left him with more space than is usually present between stones in such patterns. Four more stones wouldn’t fit, and wouldn’t look right, anyway. As a practical matter, this was likely one of those situations in which no one would notice or think anything of it . . . except Wings himself. But he noticed, and so he altered his design plan to include an extra element.

He took a small amount of sterling silver, melted it down into ingot, and poured it into four tiny spherical molds. Such molds are used for creating beads, but the beads that result can also be turned to different aesthetic and functional purposes. Such was the case here. Once the molten silver had cooled sufficiently to remove the beads from the molds, he placed each into another mold used for repoussé work: a half-sphere shape, concave, with a pattern carved into the bottom of the well of the mold. The mold is placed on an anvil, the bead placed inside it and struck with a firm, heavy blow from the reverse. The image carved in the well of the mold will imprint itself on the head of the bead. For this one, Wings chose a floral pattern that reflected the overall design of the ring in miniature form: a center “pistil” surrounded by exactly eight “petals.” Once the floral-patterned ingot beads were complete, he soldered one into each space outside the center stone, aligning at the ordinal points with the jade cabochons.

Next came the band. Because the surface of the ring’s setting stretched probably an inch and a half from top to bottom, he chose the craft a band that would be a good three-quarters of an inch in width. It was not, however, cut in a single straight line; instead, Wings flared its edges inward and outward slightly, in a modified version of the signature scalloped design for which some of his concha belts and other works are well known. Once the edges were defined, he took an old vintage-style stamp in the shape of a string of open-based triangles, like linked arrowheads, and created a border on either edge of the entire band with it, inverting the “arrowheads” inward toward the center at an angle where the band would meet the setting. He then hand-scored lines on either side, meeting inward in a pair of small points. He the soldered the band the back of the setting, oxidized the stampwork, the ingot beads, and all of the connections between bezel and setting, and buffed the entire piece to a soft medium polish.

The last step, of course, was the setting of the stones. He began from the venter and worked outward, setting the chartreuse turquoise teardrop first — inverted, so that the point aimed downward, the arc at the top. At each of the Four Sacred Directions, he set a high round sugilite cabochon, contrasting a set of deep and vibrant purples with the lemon-line green of the center stone, the shade of the aspen leaves as they just begin to turn. Then, at the ordinal points, he placed the smaller jade cabochons, tiny bits of evergreen frosted with just a hint of snow.

The stones stood out in sharp relief against the oxidized setting, a bold desert flower of autumn engaged in a fierce fall uprising of its own. It was a reminder of the hardiness and essential strength of the flowering life of this desert land . . . and of its powerful beauty, too.

~ Aji

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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error: All content copyright Wings & Aji; all rights reserved. Copying or any other use prohibited without the express written consent of the owners.