Patania:   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. 1950.
Fabricated Sterling silver with Burnham turquoise.

Frank Patania Jr., "Cathedral Ring" c. 1965 Fabricated  Sterling silver with Smokey quartz.

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. 1960
 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.
 (Fig. 4)

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. 5)

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
 Fabricated sterling silver
       Bottom Frank Patania Jr., Bracelet c 1955
 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 success.

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
 Fabricated sterling silver
1959 Arizona State Fair
First Prize, Other Creative Crafts


 Frank Patania, Jr. Box 1962
 Fabricated sterling 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
      Fabricated 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
 Fabricated 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.
 Fabricated 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 Olaf Skoogfors.  

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 
Fabricated sterling silver with Smokey Quartz.

 Frank Patania, Jr., Bracelet 1976
 Fabricated sterling silver with Smokey Quartz

Frank Patania, Jr., Bracelet 1976
 Fabricated sterling silver with Smokey Quartz

 Frank Patania, Sr. Set c. 1955
 Fabricated sterling silver and 
Burnham turquoise

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. 1965 
Fabricated sterling silver,
 Persian turquoise and cora

 Frank Patania, Jr. Neckpiece c. 1970
 sterling silver and "watermelon" Tourmaline.
       Cross c. 1970, sterling silver
 and Persian turquoise.

       Bracelet c. 1970, sterling silver 
and Persian turquoise.

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 him."

Frank Patania, Jr. Cross
Cast Aluminum.

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 Faith.
       Fabricated sterling silver, coral, and turquoise.

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
 (Fig 24).

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,
 carnelian, moonestone

Frank Patania, Jr. Ring 1986
Fabricated sterling silver, 14k gold,
 lapis, moonstone

Frank Patania, Jr. (left to right)
Bracelet 1990 Fabricated sterling silver 14k gold, perido, garnet, tourmaline, citrine

Bracelet 1985 Fabricated sterling silver 14k gold, lapis, moonstone

Bracelet 1985 
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, watermelon tourmaline


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.
(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: 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

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Article by Shari Miller
Photographs courtesy of  Shari Miller & Sam Patania
 Web design by Marbeth Schon 
 Copyright © 2001 Modern Silver Magazine

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