70 years of Excellence
Part II of II
by Shari Watson Miller.
They sit at their
respective benches, back to back in the workshop in which they create
their own unique designs. They are Frank Patania, Jr. and his
son Sam, and though they share space, each is careful to respect the
creative spark of the other. They admire each other's work,
offer suggestions when asked, and generally support each other in
their art and craftsmanship.
Though the individual styles of three Patania generations (Fig. 1, 2,
3) are distinguishable, there is a common thread that runs through the
fabric of this family and their work-the commitment to craftsmanship
and design. This quality is a direct descendant of the standards
of excellence established by Frank Patania, Sr. over 70 years ago.
Frank Patania, Sr., Floral Spray Set, c.
Fabricated Sterling silver with Burnham
Frank Patania Jr., "Cathedral Ring" c.
1965 Fabricated Sterling silver with Smokey
Sam Patania Pendant and chain 1999
Fabricated platinum/iridium, 24k gold,
aquamarine, golden beryl, diamonds
Photos and memorabilia of
Frank, Sr. (see the Feb/Mar edition of Modern Silver magazine - in the
library section), the originator of the "Patania Thunderbird"
style, highlight the interior of Sam Patania's current gallery.
The newest Thunderbird Shop, renamed in 1996 Patania's Sterling
Silver Originals, is also one of the oldest-Sam Patania moved back into
one of the original locations in Tucson, Arizona's Broadway Village,
where Frank Sr. had opened the Thunderbird Suburban Shop in 1950. Fifty
years later, a father and son team once again calls this location home.
Both Frank Jr. and Sam agree that discipline has been the greatest
legacy left by Frank Sr. Through the discipline taught them, they have
been able to continue the standard of excellence set in motion at the
turn of the century. Back in November of 1946, Crafts Horizon magazine
published the following quote: "Materials hold within themselves
basic and inherent beauty. The task of the craftsman is first to
know fully the character of his material. From such knowledge will come
inspiration to incorporate the physical properties of his materials as
an intrinsic part of his design." By the time this philosophy
was just being introduced to the rest of the artistic world, it was
already a 20-year tradition to Frank Patania Sr. And at this
same time, Frank Jr. was being brought into the fold. "I
probably had about the same training background as silversmiths in
colonial times," Frank Jr. says. "I didn't really have
any formal training. It was a tedious learning process, but I'm
thankful for it now." The training Frank Jr. received gave
him a master's understanding of the material in which he would design.
The training the younger Patania received was a breath of fresh air in
the history of contemporary American craft. To understand the importance
of this instruction, one must look to Frank Sr., who came to America
with his experience of the apprenticeship system from Italy in the wake
of the Industrial Revolution. This had a lasting effect on the
handmade tradition. Mass production became apart of everyday life.
The need for the services of skilled, educated artisans declined, as did
the apprenticeship programs that trained them. It was accepted that mass
production pieces were in general of better quality than what most
people could make. Many craftsmen were forced to close shop and join in
the factory ranks as designers.
The effect of mass production on jewelry design is evident with a glance
of any "Sears and Roebuck" catalogues of the early 20th
century. Since these products were being made for the masses, designs
were often "dumbed down", reflecting "safe" motifs
repeatedly rooted in past trends. Reproduction became the national
aesthetic. There were however, "pockets" within the
United States that were exceptions. The Kalo Shops and Roycrofter, for
example, were teaching apprenticeship programs, but they were small
factors compared to the overwhelming impact of mass production.
Frank Patania J. Bracelet, c.
Fabricated sterling silver and Morenci turquoise
Another important gift
that Frank Sr. passed on to his son, and his grandson as well, was
that of fearlessness in design, the ability to create and express an
artistic vision unafraid of how it might fit in the conventions of the
time. For example, the bench work required of Frank Jr. in the
Thunderbird Shop before going to college was directed and designed by
his father, and those designs didn't reflect the taste of mass
production. But it was during the long hours of tedious
repetition that Frank Jr. developed his commitment to the finishing
process of a piece. Frank Jr. often acknowledges that the finishing
process takes more time that designing and fabrication. As he
gained more freedom in the shop, Frank Jr. was able to create his own
designs, which were often simplified versions of his father's. These
early creative efforts show an emergence of the importance of
simplicity as well as an interest in basic geometric shapes.
Like many first generation American children, Frank
Jr. was encouraged to follow a formal education. Interestingly, he did not
choose applied arts, but rather American History, with a minor in Anthropology.
Reflecting on his choices, he believes his father would have thought a
degree in applied arts would have been "a waste of time," because
nothing could compare to the crafts education he had already imparted to his
son. Frank Jr. graduated from the University of Arizona in 1954, and followed
with a two-year commitment to the armed forces. In 1956 Frank Jr. joined his
father as a full time employee, working in the Thunderbird Shop in Tucson. (Fig.
With his return to the shop in which he grew up,
Frank Jr. made a clear decision to establish his own voice in design, as
exemplified in his work. (Fig 6)
From left to right, hallmarks for Frank
Sr., Thunderbird Shop, and Frank Jr.
Top Frank Patania Jr., Bracelet c 1965
Bottom Frank Patania Jr., Bracelet
Fabricated sterling silver
By the time Frank Jr. joined the shop full-time, the climate towards crafts
had undergone a major change. Postwar America witnessed an
explosion in the development of architecture, industrial design, and the
handcrafts. For the first time in decades, craft was enjoying a newfound
appreciation, much of which was due to en masse support of craftsmen through
universities and crafts schools. An indication of the health of the
contemporary jewelry movement can be seen in the surge of important
exhibitions during the 40s and 50s. The Museum of Modern Art in NYC took an
important step by promoting the first major exhibition of contemporary
jewelry in 1946. Magazines like Design Quarterly and Craft
Horizon (now American Craft) devoted full sections to design and
contemporary jewelry. By the 1950s, a number of people were making
contemporary jewelry on a professional scale. That same year, The
American Craft council held its first conference, attended by over 450
crafts men and women from 30 states. During the three day conference they
addressed many concerns of the young craftsman, including: 1) the
craftsmen's relationship to society in economics and social esthetics; 2)
design importance as it related to techniques; and 3) problems in
professional practices in the small business. While many young craftsmen in
the United States were just addressing these issues for the first time, The
Thunderbird Shop of Tucson and Santa Fe had already found resolution in
regards to these problems and had implemented them in to a system that
allowed the creativity of the shop to flourish while maintaining financial
At this conference, metal smith Arthur Pulos made the following observation:
"Marketing presents the greatest problem to the metal craftsman. He
must depend upon either the slow growth of his reputation or he must embark
upon some means of self -promotion. The exhibition circuit seems most
popular. However, exhibitions take time from creative activity with
questionable benefit to most participants."
This idea was far from lost on Frank Jr. With the foundation of the
Thunderbird Shop firmly in place, Frank Jr. was able to put his energy into
shows and competitions. It was through these exhibitions and
commissions that Frank Jr.'s talent would shine. When asked to
describe his process he said, "My work is basically a contemporary
style using the architectural technique of fabrication, like building a bridge.
Each piece, rather that being cast as a whole, is the sum of the parts,
fitted to achieve the end result."
In 1959, Frank Jr. entered his first of many competitions, and wins First
Prize at the Arizona State Fair. (Fig. 7)
Frank Patania, Jr. Pie Server 1959
1959 Arizona State Fair
First Prize, Other Creative Crafts
Frank Patania, Jr. Box 1962
silver with Aquamarine
That same year, Frank Jr. participated in the prestigious "Young
Americans 1962" exhibition. This was a national competition sponsored
by the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, NYC, for craftsmen thirty years and
under, circulated by the American Federation of Arts. Patania
submitted a neck piece (Fig 9).
Frank Patania, Jr. Neckpiece 1960
sterling silver with citrine.
Also in 1962, Frank Jr. was included in the first annual survey of modern
American jewelry by Craft Horizon magazine, and his entry (Fig 10)
was shown in one of the issues. Commenting on the survey, noted
jeweler Ron Hayes Pearson stated: "In evidence is a search for new
forms of expression and inventiveness and a freshness
that indicate the possibility of a bright future for some individuals.
A wide variety of traditional techniques have been employed some
with great success. It is however, apparent that many exhibitors have
not worked long enough to develop adequately their design ability or
technical skill. Among the top ten percent the level of
craftsmanship is excellent."
Frank Patania, Jr., Bracelet 1960
sterling silver bracelet.
It is obvious that Frank Patania Jr.'s bracelet is in the top ten percent of
which Ron Pearson spoke. Currently, this bracelet is in the permanent
jewelry collection of the Renwick Gallery.
In 1964 as Frank Jr. explored new directions, won awards, and found important
commissions, his father FrankSr., succumbed to cancer. Frank, Jr.,
now a father himself, had to carry on without the master. Work and life
continued in the shop, producing jewelry that was still known as the "Patania
Thunderbird" style-but this time, it was Frank Jr.'s own.
In the 1960s, contemporary jewelry in the United States would enjoy a new
level of sophistication. Jewelers were turning to gold and precious
gems, and exploring new techniques. For the most part, Frank Jr.'s philosophy
on material is the same now as it was then-that working with material of less
value is a necessary part of the affirmation of the expressive form over the
intrinsic value, and still claims that a piece of work should stand on its own
merits as far as design and craftsmanship. It should not have to be made
out of precious material and set with valuable stones to make it outstanding
or command attention.
Though most of Frank Jr.'s work is in silver, he did some work in gold. He
did this not for the intrinsic value of the metal itself, but for the material
contrast, often using it as a complement to silver (Fig. 11). There are
relatively few pieces produced by Frank Jr. in purely gold (Fig. 12). Frank's memories of the Depression have influenced this part of
his life and work-his vivid memories of his mother feeding the hungry off of
their back porch have perhaps contributed to the stress he feels when working
with precious stones. He openly admires his son Sam's ability to work
with such materials with the ease and capability that he does.
Frank Patania, Jr., Necklace 1980.
sterling silver necklace, 14k gold, carnelian and moonstone.
Frank Patania, Jr., Ring 1980
Fabricated sterling silver
ring, 14k gold.
Frank Patania, Jr., Bracelets c. 1975
Fabricated 14k gold.
Within a relatively short period of time, Frank Jr., would springboard past the
accomplishments of his father's own brilliant career. Evidence of his
talent is shown in Philip Morton's Contemporary Jewelry: A Studio Handbook,
first published in 1970, a book still considered one of the most important
books on design, technique, and the standards of craftsmanship. Morton
compiled a list of 13 jewelers-a list of those he considers to be "Among
the most influential young contemporary jewelers in America today."
This list not only contains the name of Frank Patania, Jr., but also
well known artisans such as Philip Fike, Stanley Lechzin, Hekki Seppa, and
Meanwhile, Frank Patania, Jr. was being included in several modern exhibitions
in the mid 1970s, like "Craft Encore 1976," sponsored by the Tucson
Museum of Art, in which some of his most exciting designs of this period were
featured (Figs. 13-15).
Frank Patania, Jr., Cross 1976
with Smokey Quartz.
Frank Patania, Jr., Bracelet 1976
sterling silver with Smokey Quartz
Frank Patania, Jr., Bracelet 1976
sterling silver with Smokey Quartz
Frank Patania, Sr. Set c. 1955
By the mid 1970s, the Indian craze was in full swing. Many books were
written on Indian Jewelry-among them Ray Manley's Portraits & Turquoise
of Southwest Indians, with text by Clara Lee Tanner. Tanner, noted
author on the subject of Indian jewelry is quoted as saying: "Frank
Patania, Sr. became the first and the greatest non-Indian creator of
turquoise and silver jewelry in the Southwest" (Fig 16). She goes
on to describe the brilliant and talented architectural designs of Frank
Patania, Jr. (Figs. 17, 18).
Frank Patania, Jr.
Bracelet, box and pendant.c.
Fabricated sterling silver,
Persian turquoise and coral.
Frank Patania, Jr. Neckpiece c. 1970
sterling silver and "watermelon" Tourmaline.
Cross c. 1970, sterling silver
Bracelet c. 1970, sterling silver
But Frank Patania Jr.'s talents would not be limited to jewelry. Liturgical
commissions also became an important part of Frank Jr.'s career, once again
reflecting the climate of craft in the United States. Across the country
churches and synagogues were eager to inject a fresh flow of talent into the
field of American religious art, and they turned to craftsmen for fresh
concepts in chalices, crucifixes, tapestries, and alter cloths. Frank
Patania, Jr. would participate in such exhibitions including the "5th
Biennial National Religious Art Exhibition" in 1966 at Cranbrook Academy
of Art in Bloomfield, MI. The piece Frank, Jr., sent to this exhibition was a
crown that consisted of over 100 pieces of metal, cut and shaped in over
250 hours of work. According to Frank, Jr., it was a difficult project,
but one that was obviously close to his heart (Fig. 19, 20).
Interior of crown at St. Michael's
Frank Patania, Jr.
Crown for Saint Michael and All
Angels Episcopal Church. Tucson Arizona
Fabricated brass amethyst 1964
Inscription: "To the Glory of God. In affectionate memory of Frank
Patania, Sr., a Master Silversmith. Born Messina, Sicily 1899, died
Tucson, Arizona 1964. Designed and executed by his son who learned from
Frank Patania, Jr. Cross
Another important commission located in Tucson is a large 9-foot cross,
commissioned for Northminister Presbyterian Church (Fig 21-23). It is a
500-pound aluminum Celtic cross that bears a stylized vine. Patania sculpted
the cross from Styrofoam and the various parts were then sand-cast. Hours
went into the finishing process.
Close up of technique
Frank Patania, Jr.'s makers mark on the Cross
Frank Patania, Jr., 1964 Monstrance,
a Symbol of
Fabricated sterling silver, coral,
When asked which piece stands as a testament for his abilities as a designer
and craftsman, Frank, Jr. chose a religious commission which he crafted for
Church of Christ the King in Dallas Texas
The conception and design of this piece took over three months. The final
design consisted of sterling silver set with turquoise and coral. It is
35½ inches tall, has a 10-inch diameter at the base, and weighs 15 pounds.
This commission has been in several exhibitions and publications,
including the American Crafts Council's Craftsmen of the Southwest.
Today, Frank, Jr. and his wife Donna travel between Tucson and Santa Fe.
Frank, Jr. says he is grateful for the life he has been given,
acknowledging his joy in being able to do what his loves for a living and
finally arriving at a place in which he can create the pieces he chooses
without the pressures of the market. (Fig 25-27) He looks to his son, Sam, to
carry on the family name and traditions, recognizing the struggle of a young
designer with a family and the pressures to meet payroll while still maintain
ones own inimitable style.
Frank Patania, Jr. Ring 1980
Fabricated sterling silver, 14k gold,
Frank Patania, Jr. Ring 1986
Fabricated sterling silver, 14k gold,
Frank Patania, Jr. (left to right)
Bracelet 1990 Fabricated sterling silver 14k gold, perido, garnet,
Bracelet 1985 Fabricated sterling silver 14k gold, lapis, moonstone
Fabricated 14k gold, sun stone
Frank Patania, Jr.
At Vintage Modern Gallery in Phoenix
March 23, 2001
discussing his work with some of the members of the Jewelry Art Forum
Sam Patania, as the third generation of Patania artisans, has followed very
much in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him. In
1969, at the age of ten, he began his apprenticeship at the Tucson
Thunderbird Shop. For the next decade, his after-school training would
be a major part of his daily routine. But Sam followed his own path,
too, having sought instruction outside the traditions of the shop. In
his 1977-78 school year, Sam enrolled in a jewelry-making course at Catalina
High School where he met his future wife Monica Borquez, and explored new
approaches to his craft. In 1979, he became a full-time employee of
the Thunderbird Shop. Feeding his need for knowledge he
would attend the University of Arizona in 1988-89, where he met jewelry
instructor Michael Croft.
“Michael got me to design wildly different work than at the shop,” Sam
said, in reflecting on the influence that Croft had on him in the Tucson
Museum of Arts exhibition catalogue 'The Patanias: Legacy in Silver and
Gold'. The multifaceted work that Croft inspired in Sam included the
techniques of lost wax casting, and the Japanese technique of monkume, (a
fusion-layered patterned laminate).
Times have changed since Frank Patania Sr. first started working, and those
changes have led his grandson Sam to reexamine the methodology within the
shop structure. He has seen the need to integrate production methods which
in the past would have been unacceptable, such as the decision to cast. Previous
to Sam’s tenure at the shop, this would have been considered
“cheating,” but today, it is a necessary move to keep the shop viable
financially. Still, Sam tries to keep within the traditions with which he
was raised, honoring his father and grandfather, and other artisans as well,
including well-known silver designer William Spratling.
Sam Patania Necklace, 1985
Fabricated sterling silver,
Blue Gem turquoise and coral
Sam Patania Bracelet, 1999
Fabricated platinum/iridiym 18k and 24k gold,
pink and gold tourmaline
Sam Patania, 2000
Handcrafted 18k gold repousse bracelet
trimmed with platinum
Sam Patania 2001, Pendant
Australian triplet opals set in 18k gold
Sam’s love for precious and semiprecious stones can be found in his early
years, as he was a regular at Tucson’s annual International Gem and
Mineral Show. He painstakingly chooses only the
highest quality of each particular stone for use in his work, and keeps
himself apprised of the fashion and jewelry trends of America and Europe so
as to remain aware of his audience. Sam’s personal philosophy as a jewelry
artist reflects this aesthetic: “A desire to learn drives my work,” he
says. “New techniques, symmetry, asymmetry, materials—all are areas
which continue to drive my designs. Color
captures my eye and the thought of the beautiful women who will wear my work
keeps me inspired.”
Sam Patania 2000, Pendant
Australian triple opal set in 18k gold
with ruby cabochons
Sam’s talents shine like his one-of-a-kind creations, such as the one
which is currently in the permanent jewelry collection of the Renwick
Gallery in Washington, D.C.. And his work is also on display at the old
Thunderbird Shop—now renamed “Patania Sterling Silver Originals,” to
honor the creative spirit that has earmarked this family’s heritage for
three generations. The strength and character of
the Patania name and tradition show no sign of weakening—doubtlessly, this
is a family whose standard of excellence will survive and thrive well into
both the future and history alike.
Sam Patania, Ring 1999
Fabricated 18k white, red and green gold,
Sam Patania, Bracelet 1999
Fabricated 18k white gold,
opposed bar cut green tourmaline
Vintage pieces can still be
purchased through Patania Sterling Silver Originals, 3000 East
Broadway, Tucson, Arizona 85716.
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: Precolumbian 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 DsrtTrader@aol.com
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