Patania Jewelry

The Gem of Tucson Goes National

The southwest is blessed with the cultural uniqueness that comes with the melding of multiple cultures in one region. Sam Patania, and the Patania family jewelry company, have been a beacon of this tradition for ninety-six years, creating timeless designs that combine their own Italian heritage with Native American sensibilities. The effect of this combination is something entirely unique, a testament to the Patania family legacy. 

The history of Patania Jewelry stretches back to the early 1900s, when the family patriarch, Giovanni Patania, left Sicily, coming to the United States through New York’s famed Ellis Island. Giovanni Patania, a cobbler by trade, moved to New York City to seek out better opportunities for his family. 

Giovanni’s wife Angela and their three children stayed in Messina, Italy, while their father lived in the States, but were forced to leave after a devastating earthquake in the final months of 1908. Frank Patania, the eldest of the three Patania children, apprenticed in jewelry-making in Messina, but was only able to find work as a jewelry designer in the United States in the 1920s for New York’s Goldsmith, Stern, & Co., well after his family’s immigration. 

Even in New York, young Frank was intrigued by the desert Southwest. Frank was introduced to the region after befriending owner Nathan Stern of Goldsmith, Stern, & Co., who often traveled cross-country. But it was only until Frank was hit with a bout of tuberculosis that he would make the southwest his home, eventually landing at the Sunmount Sanatorium in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, he became enamored with the close-knit art scene. When he finally recuperated, he chose to make the desert his home, leaving behind New York City and taking up the art of southwest design. This marked the beginning of the family’s 96 years in the region, reaching its pinnacle at the Thunderbird Shop in downtown Tucson. 

The Patania legacy boasts three separate branches in its jewelry-making business. The first is “Legendary Patania Jewelry”, the wholesale brand that incorporates the trademark Patania styles. “Vintage” showcases previous designs by Frank Patania Jr., and Frank Sr., many of which were sold in the original Patania Thunderbird Shop. The third generation of Patania jewelry is spearheaded by Sam Patania and his son Marco. They continue to develop the Patania style, but also have their own jewelry collection, where they deviate from Patania look and explore their own artistic choices. 

Today, Legendary Patania Jewelry is managed by Sam Patania, the third generation of Patania men to take up the craft. He is the great-grandson of Frank Patania Sr. Sam Patania was also the chief jeweler in the Patania family when the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired a few pieces of Patania jewelry for their permanent collection, cementing the family’s inextricable place in the history of American jewelry. 

Each generation of Patania men worked in different styles. It’s fascinating, then, to see how some of the motifs carry on between generations. Just one glance through the Patania’s Jewelry catalog will highlight the multi-generational eye for sharp angles, vibrant gemstones, and well-wrought silver. 

The original Thunderbird Shop style leans further into the Native American influences of the region. It also benefited from a transformative trip made by Frank Patania Sr. and his wife Aurora to Italy. Here, they became acquainted with the use of Mediterranean cut red coral, adding another layer of color and Italian heritage to the turquoise-heavy style of the Southwest. 

“We use genuine colored stones which are cut for us in the design I specify to best reflect light,” says Sam. “These pieces are all made in the U.S. by highly skilled silversmiths in top quality sterling silver.” 

Later iterations of Patania jewelry are more contemporary, reducing the density of turquoise stones in the designs and introducing sharper, cleaner silver pieces that center the work of a silversmith in its appearance. This is what makes Patania jewelry so versatile. It can fit any mood, any age, and any “look”, while still adding a trademark southwestern flare.

“We are not Native American,” says Sam. “But [Frank Sr.] was influential to the art of silver and turquoise to the point where many motifs seen in Native American jewelry originated from him.” 

The family also has a longstanding tradition of hiring Native American silversmiths to work on their jewelry, ensuring that their work remains true to the culture that it draws from. This not only ensures authenticity, but it allows for silversmiths to use the family as an inspirational jumping-off point, with many of Arizona and New Mexico’s most renowned southwest jewelers using Patania techniques in their own work. 

To Sam Patania, art-making is both a passion and a constant grind. After that prestigious Smithsonian acquisition, Sam has wrestled with a very common reality of an artistic life: trying to progress in the wake of major success. 

“Art is still art no matter who praises you, it’s a tough row to hoe,” Sam says. "To make a living in art is not ever going to be easy. I had to continue to innovate in design and technique, and listen to the market, and still find time to create one of my art pieces.”

Sam’s artistic streak has carried through to his son Marco, culminating in their joint line of designs which allow them to deviate from the signature Patania looks. Marco and Sam, along with Marco’s family, are looking to expand the Patania brand outside of the southwest region. 

“My son Marco and his wife Chloe and I are taking the Legendary Patania Jewelry brand national,” says Sam. “Over the next few years, we will have a much better national presence and look forward to sharing our designs, craftsmanship, and vision across the United States.” 

In January, Kim and Pat Messier of Tucson published an exhaustive book about Pantania Jewelry titled Legendary Patania Jewelry: In the Tradition of the Southwest.

The 256-page hardcover book can be found at Mark Sublette's Medicine Man Gallery at 6872 E Sunrise Dr. where Pantania jewelry is on full display.

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