Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Count the Tommy Singers

When I started the jewelry business, the name that stood out was Tommy Singer. I went searching first hand through the maze of jewelry dealers here in Gallup (later Albuquerque then Santa Fe) only to be told in various versions, "No, we don't carry Tommy Singer, he doesn't really do his own work." I began to understand that behind that criticism was a man who was not always easy to work with. Then one day I ran across a dealer here in Gallup who had a good stock of Tommy Singer products. The dealer told me that when Tommy calls, no matter what time, he goes to store, meets Tommy, and buys all he has to offer. He added that he is very careful not to offend him. Tommy's necklace's are very popular and knockoffs are bountiful. The true Tommy Singer necklaces carry a small metal tab with his name. He has a number of other products. We sell his belt buckles about as fast as we can list them. Tommy does indeed have employees who help him produce his much-in-demand jewelry. I'm sure he needs the assistance for he is widely considered one of the greatest contemporary Indian jewelry silversmiths of our time. You are correct if you counted 12 necklaces.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Find of the Year

I entered the Native American jewelry business less than a year ago, but I think I just found a piece to celebrate as my find of the year. And you might know it's a Harry Morgan masterwork. The belt is not new. It's hard to tell from the buckle itself, but the 36 inch ranger belt leather shows modest evidence of wear. I joyfully discovered the belt sitting along with some other Harry Morgan pieces and presumed it was new until after I bought it and began a careful inspection. It's 14K gold and sterling silver. The 7 cabachons are high value spiderweb matrix turquoise from the now closed Lone Mountain mine in Nevada. This buckle has it all, gold, silver, gem quality turquoise, and the hallmark of it's master maker. I wish I knew the whole history.

addendum 1/31/08: I went back to the trader who sold me the above belt. He bought it for himself directly from Harry Morgan and wore it for awhile then decided to put it up for sale along with some other items by Harry.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Comparisons--Crude vs Elegant

In the halcyon days of our early adult years Sandy and I wiggled out our deep Texas roots and moved to Sells, Arizona located deep in the heart of the Papago Reservation (now called Tohono O'Odam). That reservation is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. The Papago have always been well know for their elegant baskets. In that era there was only one known Papago silversmith; he kept a few pieces for sale at the Quijotoa store. We bought two pendants, both can seen here. We had always thought of them as priceless treasures. Sandy wore them frequently until they finally ended up buried for years at the bottom of her jewelry box. A couple of days ago, I asked her about them and after a short search she retrieved them. I was shocked to see how crudely made her "jewels" really were especially when compared to the simple, elegant, refined Hopi silver work as illustrated by the center piece in the image above. We were obviously enamored with the subject matter from those days when we enjoyed a wilderness lifestyle surrounded by the stately giant Saguaro cactus which provided a historically important food source from their bright fruit harvested annually by Papago women bearing long poles made of cactus ribs. The back pieces of these two Papago pendants are exceptionally crude; they bear the marks of the stamping and gouging out of the designs from the front. Still given the time period and subject depicted these "jewels" may one day find a place in a museum.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Harry Morgan's Unfinished Gift

Imagine my delight when Robert Chee showed up to personally meet me today. As I often note, he is one of my favorite silversmiths and a cousin of Harry Morgan's. They chummed as teens and both supported themselves doing silversmithing. Mr. Chee is a quiet man so I was reserved and careful not to ask too many questions. His work is exceptional, but he does not produce canteens, jewelry boxes, and other more complex items Harry excelled at making. Nonetheless, his bracelets, buckles, rings, and pendants done in the old style are all Morgan equivalents. Mr. Chee wanted to know of me what items were selling best and which ones are proving slow to move. I bought all 8 pieces he brought which included the three buckles show here. When he got up I asked him if he had made the belt buckle he was wearing. He said, "No, it was a gift to me from Harry." He smiled in an amused sort of way as he continued, "he was supposed to make the rest of the pieces for me [to complete the ranger set-- it needed the keepers and the belt tip], but he never did." Harry is gone so he can't now; nonetheless, it was a beautiful buckle and a gift to be cherished. I regret that I never met Mr. Morgan, but I am very honored to have met Mr. Robert Chee.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hopi Rattlesnake Pendant

I just put this piece up on EBay and in the process decided it deserved a place on the blog. This is another art treasure by Charlie Lewis (see previous entry) that I picked up in Hopi land today.

The rattlesnake is an integral part of Hopi tradition. Long before George Hensley of Tennessee initiated the Appalachia snake handling movement, the Hopi's had theirs. It's rare for a non Indian to be admitted to their snake handling ceremony but they have been well documented in early photographs and even by Teddy Roosevelt, see: for a fairly detailed description.
I would love to gain admittance to one of their ceremonies, but I am not holding out hope. I have, as a most interested observer, attended a few snake handler churches in the Southeast. The rattlers are deceptively innocuous appearing despite the loud music, shouting exhortations, bouncing, and active handling.

It does take a bit of wallet fat to purchase either the Rattlesnake or Warrior Mouse.

Hopi--Warrior Mouse

Sandy and I set out for Hopi-land early this morning as I had long planned, but I elevated the trip to urgent status after I was stung on realizing that two belt buckles I purchased last week in Zuni were Navajo rather than Hopi. What joy we had today, the field trip was like a day in Heaven. The high desert landscape was blanketed with snow and the air was crisp and cool, but t'was our blissful immersion in fine Hopi jewelry that really made our day. It is surprising to me that with Gallup, the Mecca for Native American jewelry, and the Hopi Reservation a mere two hours drive apart, that Hopi work is so hard to find here. The stories I've been told about Hopi's not wholesaling during Winter and their scarcity of art work due runs on supplies by the Japanese simply turned out to be FALSE. Hopi work is comparatively more expensive, but still very reasonably priced, I think, given the quality. The bulk of Hopi jewelry work involves sterling silver overlay technique. Stone work among the Hopi is much less common than what one sees with Navajo and Zuni jewelry. I bought liberally; just couldn't stop really. The pendant piece I'm featuring here fascinated me the most. It has nothing to do with Mighty Mouse or any Disney character; instead, it was born of Hopi legend. The Warrior Mouse here saved a village from the Hawk. Hopi artist Charleston (Charlie) Lewis uses no patterns, thus each of his pieces are original art. Silversmithing is his livelihood and allows him to "feel free to express myself and it benefits my whole family and Hopi". He uses the cloud and corn for his hallmark. This is a fabulous piece that I'll hate to see go.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Harry Morgan Jewelry Boxes

Harry Morgan was the most notable of living Navajo silversmiths until his death last summer. His name lives in his spectacular work now widely distributed in private collections and museums. One of the local silversmiths told me that he had called Harry from the Heard Museum in Phoenix and encouraged him to come down to look at the works of his they had on display. Harry said, "I know what all that looks like, I'm staying put to make more jewelry." I have not been able to corroborate the information, but I understand that it was Robert Redford who really gave Harry a boost in choosing him for doing the silver work for some movie sets. This past weekend I found two of his jewelry boxes and a set of cowboy spurs at Joe Milo's Trading Company on the way to Zuni. I bought only one, but decided to go back for the other one today. It is unusual to find Harry's work for sale now. I asked about the spurs, but as of today they were not for sale. And I almost forgot, I also had the good fortune to snag a ranger buckle set in 14K gold, #8 turquoise, and sterling silver, once again by Harry Morgan. I just wonder if Robert Redford has one just as covet worthy?

Granny Art

Our shopping trip to the Zuni reservation on Saturday is one we will long remember largely for two finds: 1) two Harry Morgan jewelry boxes which I'll feature in the next post, and 2) this fabulous Grandma fetish necklace. Yes, it the real thing. Grandmother Quandelacy carved the reversible corn maiden, then family members Faye, Georgian, Andres, Avery, Saundre, and Stuart (all Quandelacy offspring) submitted contributions to go into this piece of art which we were fortunate enough to acquire. The first grandmother necklace was so called because it was made as a gift to Ellen Quandelacy, the head of the family.

It's beginning to look a lot like a museum around here. One of my friends who is a noted Western historian once told me that most the best pieces are in private collections. The museums tend to have aquire and display the common. This glorious piece is certain to end up in a private art collection and perhaps the public doman a century or more down the road.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Elusive Hopi

As I've noted before, Hopi jewelry is just hard to get my hands on. I'm told their jewelry products are in great demand by the Japanese. I've also been told they do not distribute to wholesalers in the winter. Instead they strictly deal in retail. I'm planning a trip to Hopi to find out for myself. I had a great opportunity to acquire two elegant, buffed sterling Hopi belt buckles this weekend in my pursuit of trout inlaid jewelry. These two pieces alone justified the 120 miles round trip to Zuni and back to Gallup. Note the mudhead and kachina. Both buckles are quite large. The octagonal buckle measures 3 x 3 3/4 inches and weighs in at 3.4 ounces. It is signed with the hallmark "B ¢ t" for Becenti. I was unable to learn the artists first name.

Addendum 1/18/08: A journal reader notified me today that this buckle is not Hopi, instead it is Navajo piece by silversmith Floyd Becenti. I verified the information, thus this correction addendum. Nonetheless, the title is still appropriate and I plan a trip to Keams Canyon, Arizona tomorrow to see what I can about acquiring some genuine Hopi silver jewelry.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Trout Fishing

Yesterday's blog post gives a web reference leading to information on Dennis & Nancy Edaakie. There I saw a picture of a speckled trout bola tie and decided to go fishing for one. About mid morning Sandy and I packed a picnic lunch and headed South under a beautiful Western sky looking for trout on the reservation lands. We first stopped at Joe Milo's Trading Company, one of my favorite dealers, on the highway to Zuni. I looked, but did not find trout; nonetheless, we did find two Harry Morgan jewelry masterworks. Since Harry passed away this summer his work has become very difficult to find. It is all collector worthy and now escalating in value. We travelled another 25 miles down the road to visit some Zuni shops where I finally found a little inlay trout on one of Sammy & Esther Guardian's belt buckles! In the image above you can see the little trout just below the finally detailed bear. We had a wonderful day and came home with at least two dozen pieces of very high quality jewelry. I will have to initiate a request for some trout work from Dennis & Nancy Edaakie via a wholesaler who they deal with regularly. Now that cell phones are so pervasive on both reservations (Navajo and Zuni), it is much easier to request an order.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Birdman and Ladybird of Zuni

Today I traveled Gallup in search of jewelry by Dennis and Nancy Edaakie. I was very happy to find several pieces by this internationally famous couple. For more information on these outstanding artisans go to:

Silversmith Robert Chee

Robert Chee is not as well known as his cousin master silversmith Harry Morgan. R. Chee's bracelets I think are as skillfully crafted as Harry's, but as far as I know Chee has never created a canteen (a true test of smithing skill). I buy directly from Chee's wife. Today she had these 5 bracelets to sell. As you can see, I bought them all.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Navajo Jewelry?

Indeed, this lovely sterling silver necklace / earring set was made by Navajo silversmith James Bahe.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Zuni Inlay Treasure

I picked up this beautiful belt buckle by Sammy Guardian at a local wholesaler. Sammy collaborates with wife Esther, thus their hallmark "S&E Guardian". Note the etching in the jet stone and the pipestone mesas in the background. This buckle is definitely a treasure.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Zuni / Hopi Advantage

The Navajo out number both the Zuni and Hopi about 20:1 in terms of population. There tends to be a premium on the jewelry pieces of both Zuni and Hopi I think primarily because of supply limitations. Only a small number of Hopi pieces can be found in Gallup, but both Zuni and Navajo pieces are plentiful with Navajo much more common. I wouldn't be surprised if the actual ratio is 20:1. Pictured here is Emery Ohmsatte's unique lapidary inlay set in sterling silver with raised center and bead settings which make this piece one that is not easy to forget, as its three dimensions really catch the eye. His exacting artwork commands premium prices.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Sammy Smith's Grizzly Fetish

On the last entry I discussed Navajo Sammy Smith's small fetish carvings, but he also produces large ones. The Picasso marble and turquoise piece shown here (Ebay item number: 170100339259) is about 1/4 lb in weight and measures 2.5 x 2 inches, a bit bulky for neckwear. I did not think to ask Sammy about his largest fetish creaton ever, but I image it would be at least a 10 pounder or better judging from the size of those I saw yesterday in his workplace.

Native American fetishes never really age, they just grow more influential with time.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Fetish Fixation

Native American fetishes have certainly captured my attention this week. Today Sandy and I visited a fetish carver, Sammy Smith, who showed us the whole process. He began by showing us his hardened, callous hands; I've never seen a rougher pair. He told me he has been carving fetishes for 40 years. He can crank out a small fetish in raw form --from a small slab of stone--in matter of a minute or two. An electric grind stone is his primary tool. It was interesting to see some near boulder size rock (mostly picasso marble) crowding the work area. To me it was an enlightening demonstration of the enormous work effort that goes into producing this Native American art form.

Sammy's products are superb especially considering the retail price range of his fetish necklaces ranging from a low of less than $20 to around $300.

The sea of fetish you see depicted in the image here is from a 7 stand necklace. He formerly produced a 10 strand necklace, but it ended up being bulky beyond appeal.

I have a new found respect for Native American fetish carvers and I once again thank the customer who asked me the challenge question before she bought her own fetish necklace from Wilford's Trading Post.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fetish Beauty

I can't say that I believe in the power of fetishes, but I can certainly appreciate their beauty.

Fetish carvings and fetish necklaces can be found thoughout Gallup. We even have one store specializing in Navajo made fetishes and another that sells only Zuni carved ones.

I have a few fetish pieces up in the Ebay store where the fetish necklaces sell fairly well. A customer recently challenged me with questions about one of my listings. I subsequently went around town making inquiries about the lower end products. Cheap foreign imports are readily available, but there are indeed Navajo and Zuni carvers who readily carve fetishes in large quantities with the assistance of a grinding wheel or Dremel tool. In fact, one Native American lady takes in whole bags of her small inexpensive fetishes to a major dealer here in Gallup who then hires a Navajo to drill them then string them into necklaces.

Before my recent challenge question, I had paid little attention to fetishes. That's all changed. Yesterday I went out in search of the best which I found in the work of the Zuni couple Pete and Diane Gaspar. The necklace you see above is all hand carved from fossilized ivory. I'll soon list it along with the matching earrings on Ebay. It will cost more than mere pocket change, but it is a definite luxury collectible. And yes, I'll be sad to part with this beautiful piece, magic or no magic.

In Search of Don Dewa - Zuni Master

I am constantly reviewing the work of area artists in an ongoing effort to expand our offerings. Living as a jewelry dealer in Gallup is like swimming in a sea of treasure, unbelievable really. Santa Fe is a nice upscale secondary market, but any serious Native American jewelry connoisseur should visit Gallup at least once in his or her lifetime.

I needed a only brief, but freezing cold swim in order to fulfill my quest for Don Dewa treasure. The sad part is that I missed the man himself by a mere 10 minutes. I had bought a couple of his exquisite pieces at one of my preferred wholesaler dealers before moving next door where I was told Don had just left. Oh, what misfortune once again! Don is particularly well know for his trademark spinning sunface jewelry. I've been told that he does not like making buckles. They are difficult to find and the demand is high so I was very pleased to get my hands on the superb buckle shown above. Note his most excellent provenance stamp.