Frank Patania Sr.

Frank Patania Sr. (1899 – 1964) Along with his mother, brothers and sisters, Frank Patania immigrated to the United States from their native, Messina, Italy in 1909. By the age of six, Frank had already served as an apprentice to a goldsmith, where he was assigned dull, routine jobs, tasks to be done repeatedly until he could prove his worth and his ability as a master. Once he learned one job, he’d be assigned others which allowed him see many of the processes that were part of gold smithing craftsmanship.
According to his son and namesake, Frank Patania Jr., it was through this repetition that his father leaned two valuable lessons, First, a master’s understanding of every aspect of the craft and second, the discipline to put that understanding to work.
The Patania family arrived and settled in New York City. As with most immigrants, life was an uphill struggle. Child labor laws prevented Frank from working as a craftsman but, after World War I, he was old enough to be hired as a designer for the noted New York jewelry firm, Goldsmith, Stern & Company.
Students of Patania’s life and work report that little is known of Frank Sr.’s six years at the company, and assume, based on the company’s reputation that he fit in well while employed there.
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 during that era and also boasted a large diamond cutting facility.
Working for this company undoubtedly gave Frank Sr. an extensive knowledge of then-current fine jewelry trends, including Edwardian, Egyptian revival, and American and European Arts and Crafts. This interest in and awareness of jewelry trends continued throughout Frank’s life.
However, as the career of aspiring goldsmith Frank Patania Sr. began to flourish, he contracted tuberculosis and was forced to leave his adopted New York home in 1924. As chance would have it, the move was a blessing in disguise.
Goldsmith’s owners sent him to Santa Fe, New Mexico to recuperate. They told him to, “… go out there and get well and come back.”
During his convalescence, he fell in love with native Indian jewelry and what was being created using turquoise and silver and stones. It was then that the distinctive style of Frank Patania was born. In fact, Patania chose to live in the Southwest even after his heath improved.
The Luce Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. where many of Frank Senior’s objects are on display, greets visitors with Frank’s own words:
“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.”
The work that Frank produced reflects both his European training and his exposure to Pueblo and Navajo jewelry.
Frank drew his work ethic from the Italian creative spirit which combined technical expertise and artistic imagination. It is a uniquely Italian commitment to fine craftsmanship and family corporate bonding that goes back to the Renaissance.
Its structure gives each member of an artisan family a job that contributes to the family enterprise. This proved a great asset to the Patania family’s standards of excellence through three generations that include Frank’s son, Frank, Jr. and his grandson, Samuel Frank Patania.
Frank’s style drastically transformed when he moved to the southwest. He began to work in new mediums that included silver and turquoise, increasing the scale of his work and employing new techniques. The successful marriage of these two seemingly incongruous traditions became the foundation upon which the style, Patania Thunderbird has become known.
In 1927, now in better health, Frank opened the first Thunderbird Shop next to the Santa Fe Railway ticket office. Accessibility to the west by railroad along with the commercialization and glamorization of the American Indian brought business to Patania, as did Fred Harvey, founder of the Harvey Houses.
Another Harvey business called Indian Detourcars filled the needs of those who wanted a more diverse southwestern experience. Fortunately for Patania, the Santa Fe-bound Detourcar let its passengers off directly in front of the Thunderbird shop.
In 1930, Patania married Aurora Masocco also from Italy. Aurora is said to have had a special sense of style and was an excellent complement to her husband.
After the marriage, she joined him in managing the store and also worked as concept designer. The Thunderbird Shop carried not only designs by Frank but also native Indian copper work and pottery ware. Soon after they opened the shop, Frank’s brother, Carmelo “Pat” Patania and Aurora’s sister arrived to join the growing family business.
The influence of Native American design is obvious in Frank’s early work. For example, motifs and designs show inspiration and a personal style that draws from an exploration and understanding of the American Indian and resulted in Frank’s “western style.”
One famous example is an unmarked silver belt buckle made around 1930. The buckle is said to have belonged Aurora’s sister Albertina and is thought to be one of Frank’s earliest pieces from this period. The style, medium, and technique follow the tradition of Native American “butterfly” belt buckle design.
Other early designs also display a growing familiarity with Native American jewelry combined with superior materials which, for Frank, was always paramount. They also exemplify Frank’s appreciation of quality craftsmanship gained through his childhood apprenticeship in Italy and also from the time he spent with Goldsmith, Stern, & Co.
For his popular work, Patania borrowed Indian ideas and designs making them modern and sophisticated. He also borrowed from nature. Organic shapes – flowers and leaves – are abundant in his work. While Frank drew from Native American styles, it was an almost reciprocal arrangement: a lot of his design motifs also began to appear in Indian work of the time and thereafter.
Patania’s work was immediately popular. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was one of his clients. His grandson is known to have mused, “It was sort of like what Elvis did for black music,” Sam said of his grandfather’s work. ”He made it acceptable for Anglos to wear Indian jewelry.”
Santa Fe was a great place to sell jewelry in the summer when tourists were arriving in droves, but Patania soon realized he needed a winter market. While making his way to California, he drove through Tucson and fell in love with it.
In 1937, with his brother Carmelo, Patania opened Thunderbird Curios in Tucson selling jewelry and Native American crafts. After more than twenty years, Carmelo left to open his Kachina Shop in 1959 which he owned and operated until his retirement in 1979.
At the same time, Frank Sr. and Aurora had a successful business, fathered three children, Frank Jr., Joan and Sylvia; and pursued his desire to expand his operation. The Patanias and their children followed business. Tucson became their winter home and second location with the children enrolled in school there.
Every June, the Patanias returned to Santa Fe, where they remained until November. Over the following years, they would winter in Tucson while Aurora’s sister Miranda Masocco ran the Santa Fe store.
As the reputation of the Patania Thunderbird style grew, Frank Sr. had to hire help. He employed Native American craftsmen to assist with production needs that included tourism as well as a successful mail order business. Some of the Native Americans who were connected with the Thunderbird Shop both in Santa Fe and Tucson include Jimmie Herald Sr., Charlie Begay, Daniel Enos Jr., and Julian Lovato.
In the early days, the pieces that came out of the Thunderbird Shop were unmarked. The first mark used by the Thunderbird Shop was a stamp of a thunderbird. Later, an embossed “FP” conjoined vertically in a circle along with the thunderbird shop mark was used. It was later followed by the widely recognized “FP” which is a vertical incised “FP”. This is the Thunderbird Shop mark that is most widely known today.
In the mid-1950s, Frank Sr. traveled to Italy, and while there, obtained many pieces of exquisite cut coral. With this new material, a number of designs emerged from the Thunderbird Shop. The most spectacular of these were a series of reversible coral and coral and turquoise necklaces as well as accessory and complimentary cuffs. Frank also made boxes, other small items and some flatware.
By the late 1950s, Frank Patania Sr.’s son, Frank Jr., was beginning to establish his own unique approach to design as well as simultaneously carrying on the Patania Thunderbird style. Frank, Jr.’s 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, Sr. died of cancer in 1964, he was at the height of his fame. However, he left behind two living legacies: His son Frank Jr., and his grandson, Samuel Frank Patania, who had been born in 1961.
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 all Patania works have never wavered, even to this day.
Frank Patania, Sr. pieces are hard to come by though many can be found in notable museum collections including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C.