Frank Patania Jr.

Frank Patania Jr. (1932 –) While not formally apprenticed to his father, noted Thunderbird master, Frank Patania, Sr., his son and namesake, Frank Patania Jr. spent his childhood in the Thunderbird workshop of his famous father. Nicknamed, Pancho, Frank Jr got a definitive ‘hands on’ education in the art of silversmithing that led to his career as a master metalsmith.
“I probably had about the same training background as silversmiths in colonial times,” he’s often said. “I didn’t really have any formal training. It was a tedious learning process, but I’m thankful for it now.”
In November 1946, the following guidance appeared in Crafts Horizon magazine: “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 … design.”
When this school of thought was introduced to the artistic world in the mod-40s, it was already a 20-year tradition in the Patania family and was passed on when Frank Jr. was brought into the business.
As with many first generation children born and raised in America to an immigrant parent, Frank Jr. was encouraged to get a formal education. Surprisingly, he did not choose the applied arts. He pursued a degree in American History with a minor in Anthropology.
He’s said that he believes his father would have thought a degree in applied arts would have been “a waste of time,” because nothing could compare with the education he had already received from his father.
Frank Jr. graduated from the University of Arizona in 1954 and went into the armed forces for two years immediately thereafter. In 1956 Frank Jr. joined his father as a full time employee working in the Thunderbird Shop in Tucson. With his return to the shop in which he grew up, Frank Jr. decided to establish his own voice in design.
By the time Frank Jr. joined the shop full-time, the climate toward crafts had changed. In post-war America and for the first time in decades, craft was finding and enjoying a new appreciation, much of which was due to the support of craftsmen working through universities and crafts schools.
The training the younger Patania received from his father breathed new life into the history of contemporary American craft. Frank Jr. had learned and absorbed the importance of the finishing process that gives three generation of Patania work its unsurpassed technical perfection.
Frank Jr. broke away from his father’s style of blended European and Native American influences to create his own ‘contemporary’ and ‘architectural’ style. He won a blue ribbon at the 1959 Arizona State Fair, and soon participated in the important “Young Americans 1962” exhibition which was a national competition for up-and-coming “Under 30” craftsmen and sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, in New York City.
In 1964, Frank Jr. began exploring new directions, won awards, and found important commissions. Having lost his father to cancer that year, Frank, Jr., now a father, too, had to carry on without his master. Work and life continued in the shop, producing jewelry that was still known as the Patania Thunderbird style-but now it was Frank Jr.’s.
Though most of Frank Jr.’s work is in silver, he did some work in gold. Eschewing the value of these metals, Frank’s designs were intended to show the contrasts in the materials using the gold to complement the silver. There are relatively few pieces produced by Frank Jr. in purely gold.
In a relatively short time, it was agreed that Frank Jr., had nearly eclipsed the accomplishments of his father’s illustrious career. His talent was recognized when he was cited in Philip Morton’s, Contemporary Jewelry: A Studio Handbook, first published in 1970. The book is still considered one of the most important works on design, technique, and the standards of craftsmanship.
Among the thirteen jewelry designers Morton singles out as those he considered to be “Among the most influential young contemporary jewelers in America today “…was Frank Patania Jr. This list also recognized well-known artisans including Philip Fike, Stanley Lechzin, Hekki Seppa, and Olaf Skoogfors.
Frank, Jr was also included in many mid-70s exhibitions, e.g., Craft Encore 1976 sponsored by the Tucson Museum of Art, in which some of his most exciting designs of this period were featured.
With Native American jewelry and crafts growing in popularity, books were written on Indian Jewelry. In one, Ray Manley’s Portraits & Turquoise of Southwest Indians, with text by Clara Lee Tanner, herself a noted expert on Indian jewelry, Tanner writes, “Frank Patania, Sr. became the first and the greatest non-Indian creator of turquoise and silver jewelry in the Southwest,” then goes on to describe the brilliant and talented architectural designs of Frank Patania, Jr.
Frank Patania Jr.’s talents were not limited to jewelry. Liturgical commissions also became an important part of his career. Across the country churches and synagogues wanted to inject new ideas into the field of American religious art. Consequently, they turned to young, up-and-coming craftsmen for fresh concepts in chalices, crucifixes, tapestries, and alter cloths.
Frank Patania, Jr. would participated in this work with exhibitions including the 5th Biennial National Religious Art Exhibition in 1966 at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, Michigan. The piece Frank, Jr., sent was a crown that consisted of over 100 pieces of metal, cut and shaped during more than 250 hours of work. According to Frank, Jr., it was a difficult project, but one obviously close to his heart.
The crown, made in 1964, was fabricated brass amethyst and contains the following 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.”
When asked which piece stands as a testament for his abilities as a designer and craftsman, Frank, Jr. chose a religious commission crafted for Church of Christ the King in Dallas Texas. The design consists 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. It has been shown 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. looks to his son, Samuel (Sam) Frank Patania to carry on the family name and traditions.
The Thunderbird Shop remained in its second Tucson location until 1994, when Sam, who had run the business since 1990, moved it back to the original one. Today the Thunderbird Shop remains the oldest family-owned silversmithing business in Tucson.
In August 2009, Frank, Jr, wrote “A History of the Patania and Thunderbird Shop.” His advice on Patania hallmarks is worth noting.
“There are many misconceptions and much misinformation about the use of the various “FP” and “Thunderbird” hallmarks appearing on jewelry and other objects made by my father, Frank Patania Sr., myself, my son Sam, and the various craftsmen who worked under us in Santa Fe and Tucson.
“I am Frank Jr. I am 77 years old. My two sisters, Joan and Sylvia, and I grew up in the Thunderbird Shop that our father founded in Santa Fe in 1927. My mother’s sister, Mirandi, also was involved in these early shop days. Today she is 95 years old and living in Santa Fe. In 1937 a second Thunderbird Shop was opened in Tucson, Arizona. My sisters, Mirandi, and I are the oldest living persons associated with the early days. Therefore, in consultation with them, I believe that we are the most qualified to present the history of our hallmarks.
“The history … is not simple. My dad did not believe that hallmarking his work was very important, so most of his earliest work may not have been hallmarked. On his more important pieces, he would rocker engrave “FP” in a diamond shape on the back of the piece.
“As the business grew he hired Native American and Hispanic silversmiths to work under his tutelage. … As the master craftsman [my father] would sketch out the design, select the stones, mostly turquoise, and supervise the construction of the piece. Thus, the “Thunderbird Style” which characterized the work produced under his guidance evolved.
“Eventually, he decided that the work coming out of the shop should have a hallmark. The “thunderbird” was chosen to represent his Thunderbird Shop and a die was made. Our consensus is that this hallmark was first used in the late 1930’s in conjunction with a “sterling” die.
“Later on dad realized the importance of a more personal hallmark, and a conjoined block “FP” was designed and a die made. This was done in the early to mid-40s. This mark along with the thunderbird and sterling would be stamped into pieces he made and into pieces that he designed and were made by his craftsmen under his supervision. Thus, the work produced had different combinations using these three dies. The sterling die was used along with the thunderbird and the block FP in various arrangements on the back or bottom of the object. Sometimes only the thunderbird would be stamped with the sterling, or the FP with the sterling, or only the thunderbird itself. Different arrangements of hallmarking were used throughout the years.
“In the 1950’s two new hallmark dies were made with the FP inside an oval, sometimes referred to as a “cartouche”. These oval dies were made in two sizes. One … had a block FP cut into the die itself so that when struck the oval was pressed into the metal and the FP remained raised …. This style die usually was used to hallmark more important pieces made by him or under his supervision.
“The other cartouche die consisted of a thin line oval with a stylized script FP enclosed. When struck, the oval and FP cut into the metal so that when oxidized and polished they appear as thin black lines. My dad created many outstanding works of jewelry and other items, most of these pieces he hallmarked with this thin-line cartouche die.
“After my dad died in 1964 I continued the making of the Thunderbird style jewelry [and] the articles made were hallmarked in the usual manner. At this time I designed my own “FP Jr.” hallmark. I used the standard block FP, but with a small chisel I added a horizontal line across the bottom part of the P.
“In the 1980’s I had my own die made so I didn’t have to use the old die with a line chiseled in. I had these dies made in two sizes.
“Through the years a tremendous number of objects were created in our shops. These consisted of various types of jewelry and a great variety of other items including pill boxes to coffee table boxes, demitasse to cocktail spoons, ashtrays and lighters, desk sets and so on. Hundreds of custom orders were done, and monogrammed items such as key chains, buckles, money clips, etc., were particularly popular. Many organizations had items made utilizing their logos to represent membership or to present as awards. All of these items were designed by our three generations and made by our bench workers under our supervision.
“As in other well-known designer workshops such as George Jensen and Spratling all work coming out of our workshop had to pass our final approval as to quality of workmanship before being placed in our showcases or presented to our clients. These pieces were hallmarked with various combinations of the FP, thunderbird, sterling or karat gold hallmarks as I have outlined above.
“In the late 1980’s, [my son] Sam took charge of the Tucson shop, and long-time master silversmith, Dan Enos, continued to work with him. The standard hallmarking system was continued.
“Then Sam started to create his own style of work and in 1985 he devised his own hallmark, an “S” with a line passing through the lower part to form a “P”. By 1990 Sam decided to continue the guild mark tradition by conjoining his “S” to the bottom of the Sr. and Jr. FP to represent all three generations in one hallmark. He had a new die made with this arrangement and about 1995 a smaller die to use on gold work.
“In 1999 Sam devised two other hallmarking systems. To designate work previously designed by FP Sr. and Jr., but made recently, he added the letter “V” for “vintage” to indicate this was an old design.
“{Sam} wanted to continue the tradition of the Patania Thunderbird style, so he had craftsmen working in other shops making these pieces using the original designs. To differentiate these pieces as Patania designs but not made in his own workshop, he designated them as the “Patania Collection.” A die with the three-generation hallmark enclosed within the letter “C” was made to hallmark these pieces. Because Sam discontinued the Collection line … the Collection hallmark had a limited use of about two years. Jewelry so marked probably will appear on the market from time to time.
“The last several years I have noticed in shops, ethnographic, and Indian art shows, and on eBay several pieces of jewelry … attributed to my father. These pieces have no hallmarks but have some resemblance to his work. But the quality of the workmanship and the subtleties in design details do not compare to his work or work done under his guidance. Also, [as] my father’s earliest work may not have been hallmarked, I have seen un-hallmarked pieces being attributed to him as “probably his early work because it has no hallmark”.
“These are minor works that I believe were made by craftsmen who may have worked in our shops or on their own made work that was influence by what they had learned there. Therefore, great caution must be exercised in attributing un-hallmarked work to Frank Sr.”

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