Smithsonian Article March 2002
Collecting Family Silver
by Stephanie C. Doster
The Smithsonian recognizes the distinctive jewelry of three generations of southwestern silver smiths
Bent over a scarred wooden workbench laden with shears, files and other tools of his trade, Sam Patania snips sterling silver wire and sheet into tiny strips, ovals and crescents. Wearing jeans, a button-down shirt and magnifying glasses, Patania, 40, hammers the wire flat and solders the pieces together to create two clusters of turquoise blossoms with leafy silver stems—earrings designed 50 years ago by his late grandfather, Frank Patania, Sr., and still in demand today. At the other end of the narrow workshop, Sam’s 69-year-old father, Frank Jr.—or “Pancho,” as he is better known—bends gold into a ring setting.
For more than 60 years, the Patania family—father, son and grandson—has been creating remarkable designs in silver, gold and platinum in their Tucson, Arizona, shop. The Patanias, says Joanne Stuhr, curator of the Tucson Museum of Art, “are absolute master craftsmen.” Last year, their work caught the eye of Kenneth R. Trapp, curator-in-charge at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who added three Patania bracelets—each reflecting a distinct generational voice—to the 100-odd other items in the gallery’s jewelry collection. Very simply, he says, “they appealed to me.”
In Frank’s circa 1950 floral spray design, 25 round turquoise blossoms rest on layers of veined silver leaves and wavy silver stems that wrap around the wrist. Pancho’s bold and virtually seamless asymmetrical bracelet was fashioned about ten years later from six irregularly shaped pieces of silver soldered together over a small superstructure. Sam’s 1999 bracelet—a clear green tourmaline wedged in 18-carat white gold—reflects his determination to break away from the types of pieces the older Patanias created. “The bracelets represent three generations of this family,” Trapp says. “They really do have a story to tell.”
That story began in Sicily. Frank Patania, son of a cobbler, was born in Messina in eastern Sicily in 1899. At 6, he began learning the fundamentals of jewelry making as an apprentice to a local goldsmith—an arrangement that ended abruptly one December day in 1908.
Early that morning, family lore has it, a specter appeared at the foot of his mother’s bed, telling her to gather her three children and take them outside. Moments later, an earthquake shook the family’s house to the ground. The Patanias were spared, but they set sail for New York the following year.
As an immigrant son, Frank made tassels and braided cord for a milliner and worked as a factory machinist during World War I. After the war, he landed a job with Manhattan jewelers Goldsmith & Stern, where he was groomed as a designer, working with platinum ring mountings and cameos.
When Frank contracted tuberculosis at age 24, his employers shipped him out to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to convalesce. But the same scenic beauty, brilliant light and ethnic allure that had attracted painter Georgia O’Keeffe and novelist D. H. Lawrence to northern New Mexico also captivated him. When his health rallied, he decided to stay, and in 1927 he borrowed money to open his own shop in the center of town.
Local Native Americans had been making silver jewelry since the mid-19th century. Soon Frank began to combine their heavy silver and stone materials with his own stylistic approach. The native techniques “got his thinking away from the very fine, precise platinum works Back East into something bolder and more powerful,” Pancho says.
Beginning in the 1930s, Frank and his new wife, Aurora Masocco, befriended such well-known local painters as Randall Davey and Lady Dorothy Brett, and later, actress Greer Garson. With a welcoming sofa, fireplace and full coffeepot, the shop became a frequent stop for Georgia O’Keeffe, who was known to use the Patanias’ telephone and sit and chat or stash her packages behind the counters while she ran errands around town.
Business was brisk in Santa Fe during the busy summer season, but Frank decided to expand the business to a warmer winter climate and, in 1937, settled on a spot in downtown Tucson. Shuttling back and forth between Tucson and Santa Fe, Pancho and his two sisters grew up in the shops alongside a team of Navajo, Hopi and Spanish-American apprentices. Pancho recalls his father telling him to make dozens of tiny silver beads, which were used as ornamentation on larger pieces; each time Pancho finished a batch, his father would tell him to make more. “It was tedious, but it was a blessing in disguise,” says Pancho. “Dad trained me as an apprentice would be trained under a master.”
Pancho joined the family business full-time in 1956 at age 24; his father died of cancer in Tucson at age 64 in 1964, and Pancho took over the shop. Drawing inspiration from architecture and sculpture, he simplified, streamlined and updated his father’s designs. Pancho still divides his time between Tucson and Santa Fe, where he owns a shop with his wife, Donna.
Ten years ago, Sam took over the Tucson studio and showroom, which sit in an adobe building on a broad boulevard. He learned the trade as a teenager working part-time in the shop, and as a student in metalsmithing and gemology courses. In one of those classes, he met his future wife, Monica Borquez. It’s too soon to say if their two young children will follow in the family’s footsteps.
Dazzled by the glorious colors he saw every year with his father at the International Gem and Mineral Show in Tucson, Sam began using precious metals and stones in his work—a style that differentiated him from his father and grandfather.
“I love working with expensive materials,” he says. “I like the idea that there’s intrinsic value in the pieces apart from my work.” While he produces jewelry that is distinctly his own, drawing inspiration from haute couture and other sources, Sam’s designs also are influenced by the work of the elder Patanias.
“Almost all of their classic pieces are fashionable, up to date,” Sam says, “and collectors have the same passionate connection to their jewelry as I do. They love it all.”
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