The Silver Trail: How An Italian Immigrant Made His Mark on Southwestern Jewelry

Jewelry made of turquoise and silver instantly brings Native American culture to mind. But much of the popularization of such jewelry came through a family of Italian jewelry craftsmen. Frank Patania, Sr. immigrated to New York with his parents in 1908 after training to be a goldsmith as a child. He was recognized as a talented jewelry designer even in his teens. But doctors sent him to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to recover from tuberculosis, and he opened a jewelry store there. And then another in Tucson.  

Frank Sr.’s designs stood out among the more familiar shapes of Native American jewelry, and in turn, his work influenced many artisans in the area. “He brought with him an Italian design sense, and worked silver in a gold and platinum style that made his pieces more sculptural and lighter in appearance than what was being done by Native Americans at the time,” Patania says. “His designs brought in clients who lived in the area part time and wanted jewelry that could be worn outside the Southwest.”

Although Frank Sr. did incorporate regional materials like silver and turquoise, as well as common motifs of Native American jewelry, his style blended these with European trends, such as the organic forms of Art Nouveau and the streamlined shapes of Art Deco. “Many of his motifs, like leaves, are not traditionally Native American, but they became ubiquitous in Native American work after he began using them,” Patania explains. “He brought an outsider’s design sensibility and work style that didn’t exist in the Southwest until he moved to Santa Fe in the early 1920s.”

The Thunderbird Shop also benefited from the expansion of Fred Harvey’s tourist company, which brought thousands of outsiders to the region, many looking for “authentic” souvenirs. Frank Sr. made jewelry for some of the company’s famous Harvey Girls as well as members of the Santa Fe creative community, including Mable Dodge Luhan and Georgia O’Keeffe. “His designs weren’t so regional, meaning his work could be worn with a wonderful fashionable impact in Manhattan, Chicago, or Kansas City,” Patania says.

The work was carried on by Frank, Jr., grandson Sam, and great-grandson Marco. Sam Patania talks about his family and how they influenced the jewelry of the American Southwest at Collectors Weekly.

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