American Indian jewelry has long been of interest to collectors, museum visitors and tourists, but in the last 50 years major changes in design have come about that are of interest to all aficionados of fine jewelry. Many of the best of these modern American Indian jewelry pieces may currently be seen until May 28th at the Heard Museum's North Scottsdale, Arizona, branch in an exhibit entitled All That Gitters: American Indian Gold Jewelry. It explores the development of American Indian gold jewelry from the 1960s to the present. About 100 impressive items, crafted from gold, precious and semi-precious gems and other precious metals, are featured, all from the Southwest and mainly drawn from the Heard's permanent collections.
According to the show's text, silver had been the preferred metal of Southwestern artists for a long time. Innovations in design and function began around the mid 1800s, with turquoise, coral, various shells and other stones being used to enhance the silver forms. The incorporation of gold occurred only in the last five decades.
Acclaimed Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma (1921-91) and other innovative jewelers began to defy the standards by utilizing new materials and creating new designs. Some used gold but in traditional patterns; other developed groundbreaking designs as they explored new techniques and materials. Loloma was introduced to fashion designers by his friend Rene d'Harnoncourt. In Paris in 1963, he showcased the design of a single, long earring, fashioned in gold with turquoise and shell, and other pieces of his appeared on fashion runways. Widely recognized for his impact on contemporary jewelers, Loloma pioneered a concept he called hidden gems, in which he lined the inside of a ring with inlay for the benefit of the wearer, which was later adapted to belts, buckles and other jewelry forms, so that the reverse, as well as the front, had artistic appeal. Loloma developed unique items using both traditional methods of tufa casting as well as atypical ones such as lost-wax casting. Among other pieces by the legendary jeweler on view is the 1963 Paris ring as well as one made of coral, pearl and 14K gold in 1975-6 after a trip he made to Egypt.
In the 1970s other jewelers also began to use 14K gold instead of silver for some of their designs. A few, like Harvey Begay, Charles Supplee and Phillip Honanie, worked with French jeweler Pierre Touraine — who owned a gallery in Scottsdale — to learn additional skills like diamond setting.
By the mid 1970s some jewelers were creating works entirely in gold or using gold to accentuate silver items, although many collectors and shop owners still wanted and expected Native jewelry to be in silver. Even more jewelers began to incorporate gold in the late 1970s.
At the end of the 20th century, young American Indian jewelers developed their skills and individual design perspectives after attending schools known for their art departments such as the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and the College of the Art Institute of Chicago. Jewelers also began to use different metals such as steel or mokume, a Japanese method of combining metals. Nevertheless these younger artists continued to collaborate with and to be influenced by older, experienced jewelers, many self-taught. In several cases jewelry-making became a family tradition, with children and then grandchildren following in their relatives' footsteps. Today American Indian jewelers may create items entirely in 18K gold or in silver, either in more traditional styles or in newer, more innovative ones, resulting in a wide diversity of pleasing forms and designs.
The collaborative couple Yazzie Johnson(Navajo, b. 1946)and Gail Bird(Santo Domingo/Laguna, b. 1949) began using gold as accents on belts, belt buckles, brooches and other jewelry items and began putting designs on the reverse of buckles in the 1970s. They studied historic jewelry, which inspired them to make use of a variety of natural stones. The two are known for their selection and incorporation of unusual stones. Also, unique features of their necklaces is the design in overlay techniques on the reverse of the clasp, made to be worn on the side, rather than on the back of the neck. Among their innovative works at the Heard are thematic belts for which they are well known. The dramatic and unusual "Route 66/Tourism Belt," (1995) was based on things they saw growing up together in the Southwest. Most of the designs are from Navajo pictorial weavings. Others are from billboards, roadside signs, neon lights, and roadside structures. The buckle has a Wild Horse (a kind of stone)picture jasper on the front, and on the reverse a Zia sun symbol, which is also the New Mexico state symbol; a horizontally placed bow to symbolize mountains; an arrow from a Navajo pictorial textile; and the US 66 symbol. Their work is included in the collections of several museums, including the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. They live and work in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico.
Jeweler Charlene Sanchez Reano(San Felipe Pueblo, b. 1960) does mosaic shell and stone inlay work, represented by a striking herringbone pattern reversible necklace of spiny oyster shell, abalone and turquoise. She learned her trade from elder relatives, following in the Santo Domingo mosaic tradition.
Jesse Monongye's (Navaho/Hopi, b. 1952) huge belt buckle elicits "wows." Fashioned out of opal, ruby, Candelaria turquoise, diamond and 14K gold, it features a large blue turquoise spider perched on a gold spiderweb. Raised in New Mexico, Monongye learned the basics of metalsmithing by watching his father, Preston Monongye (aka Monongya), a master tufa caster whose work is also in the exhibit. Both jewelers have used the spider design. Monongye was Artist in Residence at the Heard Museum where he taught Navajo jewelry making. He is represented in many private and public collections and has been featured in a number of group and individual exhibitions. He donated the spider piece to the Heard Museum in memory of his deceased daughter Stephanie; he explained that creating it was part of his healing process.
Dennis and Nancy Edaakie (Zuni Pueblo, 1931-2008 and b.1937) developed a unique technique for their inlay jewlery that was similar to Hopi overlay work. They cut out a design in silver or gold and place it over another sheet of metal. The cut out area is then filled with colorful shells or stones. It is said that their bird designs are so realistic that specific species can be identified from their pieces. They used 14K gold as early as the 1970s for their complex inlays, as evidenced by several bolo ties, a watchband and a brooch pendant in the show.
Elizabeth (Liz) Wallace's (Maidu/Navajo/Washoe, b. 1975) work is represented by two brooches, one a Cicada (2005) with outstretched blue wings and carved body fashioned from black lip oyster mother of pearl, silver and 14K gold and another, a Wasp (2008), made from Tahitian pearl, opal, silver and 14K gold.
Norbert Peshlakai's (Navajo, b. 1953) dog pins show a whimsical sense of humor. "Watch Dog," made of silver and copper, shows a grinning dog wearing a collar that sports a Timex watch. In the second piece a dog wears a 14K gold collar, tail wagging, caught in the midst of a happy romp. His daughter Natasha Peshlakai (Navajo, b. 1981) has one piece in the show, "The Potter," (2006). A seed pot made of coral, silver and 14K gold, it features a young girl's head in a traditional hairstyle worn by young, unmarried Hopi women in the 1900s, the title also a little joke(the head being on top of a pot).
Raymond Yazzie's (Navajo, b. 1953) cuff "Blessings Bracelet" (2003), which employs several kinds of turquoise embedded with various small stones like onyx, lapis lazuli, fossilized ivory and 18K gold, won several imporant prizes the year it was made, including the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market. Charles Supplee's (Hopi, b. 1959) matching necklace and earrings are in a spiral design utlizing sugilite, diamond and 14K gold in purple, gold, green and salmon colors.
Cody Sanderson's (Navajo/ Hopi/ Nambe Pueblo/Pima, b. 1964) silver flasks from 2005 use turquoise and 18K gold and one is topped by a large Brazilian agate. His dragonfly bracelet (2007)uses Number 8 turquoise, silver and 22K gold. Sanderson uses various techniques such as casting, forging, fusing, repousse and stamping to fabricate pieces with both traditional and contemporary themes. He has received numerous prestigious awards and honors, including a Best of Show (2008)at the Heard Museum for his rendition of a sterling silver Rubik's cube. His work has been featured in the New York City Museum of Arts and Design's annual international exhibit and sale of artist jewelry and will be again this fall.
Veronica Poblano (Zuni, b. 1951)is represented by earrings (2002)of drusy garnet, drusy pyrite and silver, using geommetrical forms from which burst a stack of rods. Her jeweler father, Leo Poblano, was one of the first carvers to use dot inlay as decorative elements in his carvings. Poblano and her son Dylan Poblano work together in Zuni, New Mexico, experimenting with new materials and techniques and developing new designs.
Heard Museum North, 32633 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, Arizona, www.heard.org/north
Diana F. Pardue with Norman L. Sandfield "Native American Bolo Ties: Vintage and Contemporary Artistry," 2011, Museum of New Mexico Press
Diana F. Pardue "Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry," 2007, Gibbs Smith Publisher
Diana F. Pardue "Shared Images: The Contemporary Jewelry of Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird," 2007, Museum of New Mexico Press
Martha Hopkins Struever, "Loloma: Beauty Is His Name," 2005, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
Lois Sherr Dubin, "Jesse Monongya: Opal Bears and Lapis Skies," 2002, Hudson Hills Press