Patania:   70 years of Excellence
  Part I of II
                  by Shari Watson Miller 

Three generations of Patania men have been working for over 70 years, creating jewelry and decorative objects that have come to be known for their excellence in craftsmanship and design. In October 2000, Kenneth Trapp, co-curator of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, took possession of three Patania bracelets (Fig. 1, 2, 3) to be placed in the museum's permanent jewelry collection. The renowned Renwick Gallery's acknowledgment of the family's work came as no surprise to those who were already admirers, clients, and collectors of Patania pieces, but the move did confirm the family's important role in 20th century jewelry. Trapp himself perhaps said it best, in talking to the Arizona Daily Star, October 25, 2000 about the acquired Patania bracelets: "I really feel that these three pieces represent the very best of craftspeople and designers. What interests me is the quality of design-they're absolutely stunning." 


Frank Patania, Sr., Floral Spray, c. 1940. Fabricated sterling silver with Burnham turquoise. 

Frank Patania, Jr., Elliptical bracelet, c. 1960. Fabricated sterling silver. According to Frank Jr., the object's design and craftsmanship should speak for itself. 

Sam Patania, Bracelet, Fabricated 18k white gold with opposed bar tourmaline. Sam's work is the melding of generations-he places great importance on his choice of stones, just like his grandfather, but has taken his father's eye for technical detail to heart, as well.

The legacy left by Frank Patania, Sr. came from the integration of two distinctly different traditions-one European, and the other Native American. On the one hand, Frank Sr. drew from a long history of Italian creative spirit, combining technical expertise and artistic imagination. He instilled in his family the Italian commitment to fine craftsmanship, as well as the Italian custom of family corporate bonding. This uniquely Italian tradition can be traced back as far as the Renaissance, and provides a structure in which each member of an artisan family has a job to perform that contributes to the family enterprise. This familial check and balance system has been a powerful asset to the Patania family's continued standard of excellence through the years.

But Frank Sr.'s style was drastically transformed when he was introduced to the work of southwest Native American jewelers in the 1920s. His inspiration was multi-faceted; he began to work in a new medium-silver and turquoise-as well as in increased scale, and using new techniques. The successful marriage of these two disparate traditions has become the foundation upon which each generation has maintained the tradition of excellence in craftsmanship and design that has come to be known as the "Patania Thunderbird"style. 

Frank Patania Sr.'s early life helped him develop into the artist he was destined to become. Born in Messina, Italy in 1899, he followed the European tradition of apprenticeship. At six years of age, he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, where he was assigned the most mundane jobs, tasks to be done repeatedly until proving his worth and his ability as a master. Once he'd mastered one job, he'd be assigned another, and another, and the process continued. According to Frank Jr., it was through this repetition that he, like his father before him, would learn two valuable lessons: first, a master's understanding of every aspect of the craft. And second, the discipline to put that understanding to work.

Frank Sr. left Italy with his mother and siblings at the age of ten, bound for New York City. One can only imagine the impression that the vast American metropolis must have had on a boy his age-at that time, millions were immigrating each year, with hundreds of thousands coming from Italy alone. This influx caused class conflict, and at times no small bit of anguish to those new to American culture, but still, the times were exciting and new and always changing. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the nation was moving west, towards the exotic places portrayed by the works of artist Frederick Remington and photographer Edward Curtis. 

For Patania, however, the West was in the distant future; he would remain in the East with his family for the next 15 years. During his early years in New York he was disappointed at being unable to find a job in his apprenticed trade. Child Labor Laws of the time were the primary reason for the lack of work. While looking for work Frank Sr. attended school learning English and finally obtaining work as a machinist. Shortly after WWI he finally landed a job in his chosen field, getting hired at the age of 19 as a jewelry designer for the New York firm of Goldsmith, Stern & Company. 

Little, specifically, is known of Frank Sr.'s 6 years with Goldsmith, Stern, & Co., but conclusions may be drawn by looking at the company as a whole during that period. The firm, established in the late 1880s, was by 1919 the largest jewelry factory in New York, and claimed to be one of the largest in the world. They produced one of the most extensive and varied lines of jewelry of the era, and boasted a large diamond cutting facility as well. Obviously, working for a company such as this would have afforded Frank Sr. an extensive knowledge of then-current jewelry trends, including Edwardian and fine jewelry, Egyptian revival, and American and European Arts and Crafts. This interest in and awareness of current trends in jewelry would continue throughout his life.

In 1924, Patania contracted tuberculosis, a disease which at that time was claiming over 150,000 lives every year in the United States. Goldsmith, Stern, & Co., out of concern for the welfare of their young designer, sent him to Santa Fe, New Mexico to recover. This trip would drastically change his life and his work. In 1949, he was quoted as saying "After my first sight of the West, I never wanted to return east again. And when I saw what the Indians were doing with silver and turquoise I knew I had found the medium in which I wanted to design." 

In 1927, his strength regained, Frank Patania Sr. opened the first Thunderbird Shop on Shelby, right next to the Santa Fe Railway ticket office. This location was perfect for his new venture-tourism was abundant, especially since the completion of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe in 1880, which ran from Chicago to Southern California, via Albuquerque. The accessibility to the west, along with the commercialization and glamorization of the American Indian, brought business to Patania, as did the famous Fred Harvey, founder of the Harvey Houses. Another of Harvey's businesses was called Indian Detourcars, filling the needs of clients wanting a more diverse experience of the West. And fortunately for Patania, the Santa Fe-bound Detourcar disembarked directly in front of the Thunderbird.

In 1930, Patania married Aurora Masocco, also from Italy. Aurora, from all accounts, had a wonderful sense of style, and was an excellent compliment to her new husband. After their marriage, she joined him in managing the store, and worked as concept designer as well. The Thunderbird Shop carried not only designs by Frank Patania, but also Indian copper work and pottery ware. Soon, Frank's brother and Aurora's sister arrived to join the burgeoning family business.

The influence of Native American design is easily seen in Patania's early work-early on, for example, motifs and designs show a strong similarity. It's as if Patania was trying to find his own artistic vocabulary through exploring and understanding that of the American Indian. It is during this time that Frank Sr. refined his own "western style."

Frank Patania Sr., c. 1930. Unmarked silver belt buckle.

According to Sam Patania, this belt buckle (Fig 4.) belonged to his great aunt Albertina, and is thought to be one of Frank Sr.'s earliest pieces from this period. The style, medium, and technique follows the traditional Native American "butterfly" belt buckle design. 

Other early designs (Fig. 5, 6) by Frank Sr. also reflected a growing familiarity with Native American jewelry. The superiority of the material chosen for his pieces was always paramount, an appreciation for quality born not only of his childhood apprenticeship in Italy, but also from his time spent with Goldsmith, Stern, & Co. 

Frank Patania Sr., c. 1945. Marked "FP" with "Thunderbird",
 sterling pin with Gold Acres turquoise cabochon.

Frank Patania Sr., c. 1940. Marked "FP" with "Thunderbird",
 sterling bracelet with Persian turquoise.

The style which emerged from this period (Fig . 7, 8) truly made a statement: choice of material and scale, as well as quality of craftsmanship, becomes synonymous with Patania's work. 

Frank Patania Sr., c. 1945. Marked "FP" with "Thunderbird",
 Sterling silver and Burnham turquoise bracelets. 

Frank Patania Sr., c. 1950. Marked "FP" with "Thunderbird",
 Sterling silver and Burnham turquoise necklace. 


By the 1940s, naturalism was very popular in the American market, and could be found in nearly all jewelry trends, from fine pieces to costume. Patania's work is no exception-but the manner in which Frank Sr. articulated the floral motif made his contributions truly outstanding. (Fig. 9, 10)


Frank Patania Sr., c. 1950. Marked with "Thunderbird",
Sterling silver and Burnham turquoise. 


Frank Patania Sr., c. 1950. Drawing for commission. 


As time went on, and the reputation of the "Patania Thunderbird" style grew, patrons became abundant-notably Santa Fe locals Mable Dodge and Georgia O'Keeffe. As a result, Frank Sr. found it necessary to hire help. He often employed Native American craftsmen to help with the demand in rising production needs from tourism as well as a successful mail order business. Some of the Native Americans who have been connected with the Thunderbird Shop both in Santa Fe and Tucson include: Jimmie Herald Sr., Charlie Begay, Daniel Enos Jr., and Julian Lovato. 



Early hall mark of Frank Patania


In the early days, the pieces that came out of the Thunderbird Shop were unmarked. The first mark used by the Thunderbird Shop was, appropriately enough, an actual stamp of a thunderbird. Later, an embossed "FP" conjoined vertically in a circle along with the thunderbird shop mark (Fig. 11), followed by the widely recognized "FP" which is a vertical incised "FP". This the Thunderbird Shop mark (Fig. 12) that is most widely known today. 

More common hallmark of Frank Patania. 

 By 1937, Frank Sr. and Aurora had a successful business; three children, Frank Jr., Joan and Sylvia; and the desire to expand operations. That year, they settled on Tucson, Arizona for their second location, and over the following years, they would winter there while Aurora's sister Miranda Masocco ran the Santa Fe store. 

Tucson welcomed the Patanias arrival. With in a very short period Frank Sr. was awarded with many commissions including the Tohono symbol (Fig. 13, 14) for the Tucson Festival Society. According to Frank Jr. the design for the Tohono symbol was a collaborative effort between Frank Sr., and Erni Cabat, well known craftsman, illustrator and husband to ceramist Rose Cabat. Frank Sr. also designed many awards, including those presented by the Tucson Sunshine Climate Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Tucson Boy's Choir, and many others. It was during this time that he was acclaimed as "Finest Silver Artisan in the Country" and "the Cellini of the Southwest." All his success in Tucson culminated with the addition of a second Tucson location in 1950.




Frank Patania Sr., c. 1951. Tucson Festival of the Arts Symbol.

Frank Patania Sr., c. 1951. Marked "FP" in the oval. Custom ordered cigarette box with Tohono symbol, Morenci turquoise.

By the mid-1950s, Frank Sr. traveled to the land of his birth, Italy, and while there, procured a wealth of exquisite cut coral. With this new material, a number of designs emerged from the Thunderbird Shop, each carrying the mark of now-renowned talent Frank Patania Sr. The most spectacular of these were a series of reversible coral and coral and turquoise necklaces (Fig. 15, 16, 17), as well as accessory cuffs to compliment them (Fig. 19, 20).



Frank Patania Sr., c. 1955. Unmarked Sterling silver and coral.


Frank Patania Sr., c.1955. Unmarked Sterling silver and coral. 



Frank Patania Sr., c. 1955. Unmarked Sterling silver and coral.


Frank Patania Sr., c. 1955. Unmarked Sterling silver, coral and Mine #8 turquoise.
(Reverse of figure 17)



Frank Patania Sr., c. 1955. Marked "FP" with "Thunderbird",
 Morenci turquoise cuffs.




Frank Patania Sr., c. 1955. Marked "FP" with "Thunderbird",
 coral cuffs.


By the late 1950s, Frank Patania Sr.'s son, Frank Jr., was beginning to establish his own unique approach to design, as well as carrying on the "Patania Thunderbird" style at the same time. His designs would be recognized by many national museum exhibitions, receive several major commissions and awards, and eventually be selected for the prestigious Young American Exhibition in 1962, at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City. 

When Frank Patania Sr. succumbed to cancer in 1964, he was at the height of his fame. But he left behind him two living legacies-not only his son Frank Jr., but also his grandson, Sam Patania, who had just been born in 1961. Sam would learn from his father, just as his father had learned from his father before him. And because of Frank Sr.'s devotion to his craft, and the importance he placed on discipline in his art, the standard of excellence that is the hallmark of Patania works has never wavered, even to this day. 


Vintage pieces can still be purchased through Patania Sterling Silver Originals, 3000 East Broadway, Tucson, Arizona  85716.
(520) 795-0086



Shari Watson Miller has been involved in researching and collecting mid-century jewelry for over a decade, focusing on Mexican silver, American modern, and Studio American Indian works. Ms. Miller serves on the board for Latinum Inc. as Director of Decorative Arts and Research, where her duties include the compilation of oral histories-particularly those of Arizona arts craftsmen-and gathering original historical materials. She is currently compiling an American Studio Jewelry database, which now contains over 300 names of artisans working in the mid-century. As a board member of Vintage Modern Gallery, Inc., (VMG) in Phoenix she holds the title of Director of Jewelry, Ceramics, Glass, and Art, and in that capacity, organizes all programs and lectures offered by the gallery to promote education and awareness.

Ms. Watson Miller has co-curated several shows, including 1996's Mexican Silver Jewelry at Gallery 10 in Santa Fe, NM; and Reflections: pre-Columbian Inspiration in Mexican Silver Design at the Tucson Museum of Art in 1999-2000; Sophisticated Moderns: Claire McCardell & Edward Wormley at the Phoenix Art Museum February 3-June 17 2001. Ms. Watson Miller is also listed on the Board of Advisors of Warman's Jewelry, 2nd edition, in 1998, and has assisted in a great deal of historical research, including: Ted Decker, art consultant and advocate; Penny Fowler, Taliesin archivist; Alberto Urich, owner of the Spratling Ranch; Robert Rhodes, biographer for Charles Loloma; Warren McArthur III, founder of the Warren McArthur Jr. Historical Foundation; and the Heard Museum archives.

Currently Ms. Watson Miller's  interest has turned to the importance of the Patanias and this family important contribution to 20th century jewelry design. Recently she has given lectures on the works of Frank Patania Sr. as well as Frank Patania Jr.. On Sat., February 17, 2001 she will be at Borders Books in Tucson speaking on the Patania's . Ms. Watson Miller is also a scheduled speaker for Art Jewelry Forum (AJF) trip to Phoenix March 23, 2001.

email Shari Watson Miller at

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Article by Shari Miller
Photographs courtesy of  Shari Miller

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 Copyright © 2001 Modern Silver Magazine

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