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Exchanges With Italy

In the 19th century the continuous trading between Indian groups and the Europeans who settled in America led to the reintroduction of coral into the indigenous market. Now it was no longer a question of the occasional rosary beads imported by the Spaniards in the 17th century but rather a full-scale operation in which the Italian companies specialising in coral played a leading role. As we have seen, throughout the period in which the Indians lived in contact with the Spaniards they had come to prize the red coral of the Mediterranean, valuing it as highly as other precious stones. In addition to the memoirs of General Thomas James, quoted above, who estimated the value of the coral beads worn by a San Felipe Pueblo as being about one hundred dollars a pound, there are other records showing how the natives prized this particular gem. In 1858 we learn from a report by the Federal troops that a Zuni Indian killed a Navajo woman and took her necklace of red coral worth $200, together with other precious stones particularly prized by the Indians, such as “only the rich” could afford47.

From the middle of the 19th century an important group of European and American businessmen began to import products systematically from Europe, including coral. These dealers played a vital role in the development of the artistic style of the native jewellers. They sought out the best local talents, encouraging them and promoting the sale of their work. For the Navajos in particular, following the segregation, their contribution was crucial in establishing a fruitful relationship with the dealers and also with the other native groups.

The company of S. A. Frost & Son, New York, founded in 1858 and importing products specifically for “Indian Traders”, had close ties with the Genoese “coral manufacturer” Raffaele Costa from the end of the 19th century for several decades. The correspondence between the American importer and Costa is now conserved in the historical archive of the firm Basilio Liverino of Torre del Greco. It was acquired, together with such rarities as samples of coral balls and necklaces from the beginning of the 20th century, by Cavalier Liverino when he purchased the effects of the Genoese firm in the 1960s, an action which can be seen as marking the passage of the tradition of coral working from Genoa to Torre del Greco.

In the copious correspondence we find interesting annotations revealing the preferences of the natives for certain specific types of coral. For example it is stated that the “Indians” prefer coral of a dark red hue. If we compare the figures given by Frost & Son with Costa’s records now conserved in the Museo Liverino, we find that it was primarily beads of the little barrel or “cannetta” type which were imported into America, remarkably akin to the heishi that the Pueblos had been producing for centuries. For example, a letter dated 22 April 1902 reads: “…I hope you will send me dark red coral as I have repeatedly requested: that’s what the Indians want. The pink shades are suitable for trade with the Whites, but the Indians only buy the dark type, so I beg you not to send me any of the necklaces 996, 786, 1013, 1063, 938, 1006 in pink but all in intense rich red …”48.

In July that same year Frost & Son placed an order for 6000 necklaces, 4000 of them mounted, and in 1907 they requested 25000 necklaces in a single order49. And six years later, on 13 May 1913: “I am sorry you sent me on 2/8 3 strings # 3360 @ 80. I do not think I will be able to sell these. They are too light colour for the Indian trade and not the right shade for the White trade”50.

In the Customs Duties for Coral in the United States for the year 1906, sent to Raffaele Costa by the Camera di Commercio ed Arti in Genoa at his specific request, we learn that the import tax applied to coral imported into the USA, “considered as a precious stone of high value used in jewelry”, had been reduced from 50% of the declared value to 10%. In those years there was a “resurgence in the use of jewelry” and it was hoped, also in view of the tax reduction, that it would “prove possible to develop an industry for its manufacture in the United States”. Furthermore, according to Federal statistics “the importing of crafted coral in the years 1904-1905 amounted to about 11,000 dollars, 4000 of which from Italy…and 3000 for raw coral tax free”. The report concluded by stating that coral had increased in popularity and price as a result of the Customs’ decision to include it in the class of precious stones51.

There were occasions, however, in which coral proved to be over-priced. At the beginning of the 20th century, in order to meet the demand for cheap beads, the Indian Traders of Gallup, in New Mexico, began to import coral coloured glass beads from Czechoslovakia52 as a substitute for the costly Mediterranean gem.

Frost was not the only dealer in the old West to stimulate the creativity of the natives by importing coral from Italy. C G. Wallace too fostered the development of this handicraft and had a considerable influence on the production of jewels. Born in 1898 in North Carolina, Wallace fell under the spell of the West and frontier culture at an early age. He was sent to the Zuni village in 1918 as a clerk in a trading company, and in 1927 acquired his first trading post53. He championed the use of innovative techniques such as intarsio channel work and the use of coral in mosaic among the Zuni and Navajo craftsmen resident at Zuni, promoting collaboration between the two groups. He also encouraged them to use images taken from ethnographic and archaeological iconography (rain birds, rainbow gods and so on), thereby fostering the revival of native traditions. During the 1930s Depression Wallace created an economic holding for numerous artists and acquired a large number of the natives’ products, beginning to collect works of outstanding ethnographic value and transforming the creations of the Zunis from a regional into a national phenomenon. His commitment undoubtedly helped to increase the number of craftsmen from the pitiful nine on his arrival at Zuni to a thousand in a population which numbered 9000 in the 1950s, including jewellers, potters and fetish sculptors. Today half the Zuni population makes an income deriving from jewellrey production.

It was Wallace who started to import coral directly from Italy for the Indians, without the mediation of Frost & Son in New York. He became the largest single importer of coral for the natives in the Southwest. Another merchant, one Jim Turpen, whose father had been a friend of Wallace, has recalled that Wallace possessed the best quality and largest coral of the region54. A letter dated 27 February 1937 sent by Wallace to the firm of Costa in Genoa confirms an order for four coral necklaces for a combined value of 48 dollars, specifying that he wants necklaces containing only large beads, “as large as the largest in the necklaces ordered”55. In further correspondence dated 13 January 1940 Wallace asked the prices for coral necklaces, which in his reply Costa quotes as 14 dollars each, a considerable sum for that period. In the late 40s and 50s Wallace and his nephew Robert Watkins encouraged the Zuni jewellers to make more use of polished coral branches set with large gemstones. Two famous Zuni jewellers, Dan Simplicio and Leekya Deyuse, acted on this suggestion and introduced coral branches into their creations (figs D60362, D70061, D70062). Another craftsman, Leo Poblano, invented a method for sealing the excessively porous lower quality material using coral powder56.

Coral rapidly became an important resource in the economy of the Navajos and Zunis. In the 1940s it featured in exchanges for horses, cows, and sheep, and also as a pawn pledge, like silver and other precious materials, as well as in heirlooms passed down from one generation to the next. In moments of economic hardship, coral was exchanged by the artists with the gemstones that were acquired by private collectors, such as Wallace, or sold in the trading posts57 which in mid-century became the centres for trade in coral. There are records of a Navajo woman who possessed a precious necklace comprising eighteen strings of best quality red coral beads, purchased in part at the trading post of Shiprock and at another one in Arizona58. Chee Dodge, the first spokesperson of the Navajo Tribal Council, who died in 1947, owned a particularly long and striking necklace made up of coral beads of an intense red59.

47Woodward A., 1938, p. 16; Tanner C. Lee, 1950, p. 126

48Archivio Storico Museo Liverino, “Ditta Raffaele Costa” correspondence, 1902

49Liverino B., Il corallo dalle origini ai nostri giorni, Ed. Arte Tipografica, Napoli, 1998, p. 266

50Archivio Storico Museo Liverino, “Ditta Raffaele Costa” correspondence, 1913

51Archivio Storico Museo Liverino, Letter, Camera di Commercio ed Arti, Genoa, 19 January 1907, n. 4000

52Tanner C. Lee, 1950, p. 126

53Slaney, D., Blue Gems, White Metal, Carvings and Jewelry from the C.G. Wallace Collection, Heard Museum, Phoenix, 1998. pp. 11-13

54Slaney, D., 1998, p.22

55Archivio Storico Museo Liverino, “Ditta Raffaele Costa” correspondence, 1937

56Slaney D., 1998,. p. 23

57Trading posts became not only places for commerce but also meeting places, post offices and banks. The managers learnt the local language and respected the religion, beliefs and taboos of the natives. They were instrumental in the gradual rapprochement beween the world of the natives and that of the “whites”.

58Tanner, C. Lee, 1950, p. 126

59Idem, p. 128

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