Friday, February 29, 2008

Zuni Mudhead Jewelry

Beverly Etsate is a three dimensional raised inlay specialist. She like her famed mother Rosalie Pinto portrays Zuni mudhead kachinas by inlaying them stone upon stone. In the example here you see an Acoma jet background set in sterling silver with skillfully set cuttings of jet, coral, mother of pearl, and turquoise set in a pattern to reveal a delightful clown kachina. Bev's mudheads are the same as her Mother's, but much of her Mother's work is now vintage and as such commands much higher prices. Any serious Zuni collector should have at least one of these works.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Million Dollar Buckle

This buckle is another triumphant design of Calvin Begay. I saw the inception sketch months ago then I had to wait patiently to get the final product in my hands. Calvin initially conceived this buckle as a solitary horse head surrounded by gemstones, but he changed his mind when it was suggested that a wide angle view showing a running horse would be dazzling. So following a familiar formula first used by John Ford which put Monument Valley--the most famous of all Navajo scenic vistas--on the movie map and made John Wayne a movie star in Stagecoach (1939), Calvin crafted a Monument Valley representation incorporating the two stately Mitten rock formations as his background. This buckle is individually produced and makes a fabulous collector piece. The rim gemstones include sleeping beauty turquoise, spiny oyster, sugilite, Chinese spiderweb turquoise, Acoma jet, mojave green, mother-of-pearl, and lapis separated by tiny slivers of sterling silver. Okay, maybe it's fair market value is a mere $750, but anyone lucky enough to dress up with it should feel worth at least a million.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Hearts of Rick Tolino

I came to appreciate Rick Tolino as one of the great contemporary Navajo silversmiths by examining his art first hand, but his discovery as a highly talented jewelry designer was made years ago. His work has won him an abundance of awards, and his lovely jewely has been widely represented in numerous publications such as Arizona Highways, Cowboys and Indians magazine, and Theda Bassman’s exceptionally well illustrated book, The Beauty of Navajo Jewelry. I hope to interview Rick personally in the coming months for my fact file on him is rather barren. I do know that he was born into the great American Southwest here in Gallup in 1961 and he grew up a few miles away on the reservation in Coyote Canyon. He began his work as a silversmith in high school. Rick’s work covers the usual array of jewelry adornments: belt buckles, bracelets, pins, rings, and pendants. Hopefully, I’ll have much more say after meeting him in person a few moons from now.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Doris' Kachinas

Doris Smallcanyon (Navajo) is a master silversmith. She is both prolific and elusive, not a bad combination. She specializes in making these enormously popular kachinas in multiple sizes for use as bolo ties, rings, pins, and pendants. She also produces beautiful squash blossom necklaces. She even does a kachina necklace in the squash blossom style. I buy her work from two different wholesalers here in Gallup. Her work is surprisingly affordable especially given the beautiful craftsmanship and striking visual appeal of her kachinas. She signs her pieces with either her distinctive hallmark or a hand engraved signature. There is precious little information about her in the public domain.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Made in Heaven?

As I was listing this masterwork of silver by Berra Tawahongva, I was struck with the precision & beauty and thought it made an excellent example of quality that you might expect to find only in heaven. We can be fairly certain it's not from heaven for there silver probably doesn't rate as a precious metal as it does here on Earth. Still this precisely made work of art should satify the most discriminating of upper crust consumers. The central image is that of a Sunface, on the left is a Kokopelli musician, and on the right a corn plant which has been so important to the survival the Hopi's. One reason this buckle pops in such an artistic way is the contrast of the shinny sterling silver surface against the textured silver areas. One of the Hopi traders told me is a comparatively new innovation in Hopi silversmithing. Berra Tawahongva learned his silversmithing at the Hopi Guild which has been responsible for training so many master craftsman. His hallmark is the symbol for Masau'u (Skeleton Kachina), the only kachina who does not go home at the Niman Ceremony and thus may dance at any time of the year. Because he is a Death Kachina, he may do many things by opposites, for the world of the Dead is the reverse of this world. For instance, he comes down a ladder backward or performs other actions in reverse. As I often say, I can't wait to get back to Hopi on another shopping trip. As soon as Sandy gets home, I'm taking her for fried chicken then a 4 wheel-drive trip out onto the snow saturated, muddy reservation in search of Navajo Clarence Lee whose work I hope to soon feature on this blog. Little did I know a few months ago that dealing in Native American jewelry would be this much fun.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Effie's Serpents

The name Effie is recognized the world over by Native American jewelry aficionados. So much so that her last name Calavaza need not be uttered. My friend Sammy the owner of Desert Indian Traders here in Gallup says, "If you don't sell Effie's jewelry, you are not in the Native American jewelry business." Effie was born into the Zuni tribe in 1928. She learned silversmithing from her husband Juan Zuni in 1956. She has been producing prolifically ever since. Snake dieties are central to the designs found on her work. The snake in Zuni culture is symbolic of defiance that gained renew significance with westward expansion and subsequent broken treaties in the 19th century which resulted in forced tribal relocations and thousands of deaths. The Zuni tribe successfully hid from the U.S. Army atop what's now called Zuni Mountain. Effie gained widespread recognition for her vigorous defense of her creation which lead her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to obtain the rights to her snake symbol which was being widely copied and coming back into the markets here via imports. Effie has taught her daughters silversmithing so we can be assured that her special brand of Zuni jewelry will go on for the forseeable future. Effie's work is rough cut, old style. I am somewhat surprised that it is in such high demand everywhere. It must be the allure of the her Serpents as seen on the belt buckle here.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Roger Skeets, Jr.

I have run across Navajo Roger Skeet's work on numerous occasions, mostly concho belts of all sizes and ketohs (bow guards). His work is traditional old style. In reviewing glimpses of Mr. Skeet's story as revealed by Mark Bahti in his book Silver + Stone - Profiles of American Indian Jewelers, I was struck by Mr. Skeet's statement, "I would like to have gone to school and served my poeple on the tribal council." Born in 1933, he was the oldest of eight children. His Father chose him to stay at home to work while the other kids were sent to school. Roger's apprenticeship as a silversmith began at the age of 8. He is now in his eighth decade and scaling back. The bold concho buckle here is 4 x 4.5 inches and weighs almost 1/4 lb. This is the first adapation of a concho I've seen used as belt buckle. I think it is a clever idea and I believe it has as much appeal as a hard-won rodeo buckle.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

There are No Mansions in Hopi Land

Life has always been a survival stuggle for the Hopi people. The Hopi Tribe’s reservation land base is located in the northeastern section of Arizona with a total area of approximately 1,622,511 acres bounded on all sides by the Navajo Reservation. This land area is distinctive for Hopi villages that sit atop 600 ft high espcarpments and for the visually striking fact that the land is so inhospitable. In years of the not-so-distant past men had to walk 10 miles each day to tend to their little patchs of squaw corn while the women struggled to negoatiate the steep cliffs with jars of water on their heads. Years ago when I first visited the Hopi's, I was amazed to see the sparcity of the corn plants in their fields. There are obviously no mansions on Hopi, the depressed economy of these noble natives are evident everywhere; nonetheless, their artistry whether it be baskets, Katsina (Kachina) carvings, pottery, or jewelry is all done with world-class precision. Several of the Hopi traders and jewelers themselves told me that production of jewelry is way down; in large part, due to the escalating cost of silver. I have been very impressed with the vital role of the Hopi Cultural Center in training the Hopi people to produce precision jewelry. I was saddened to see their big roadway sign in disrepair, but what really pained me was reading the notice* posted on the entry door.

I am really proud to be in the business of the promoting the Hopi jewelry artisans. Sandy and I bought generously this weekend. We spent two days there and finally had a trecherous trip home in a blizzard. I took a wild spin off the road near the summit of a peak near Window Rock, Arizona were we remained trapped in the snow for about an hour until a Navajo policeman and a kindly Navajo family joined forces to rescue us and send us on our way back to Gallup. The 5 buckles pictured are a few of the artistic treasures we brought back from Hopi today.

*click on image for enlargement, if that doesn't work the most relevant detail reads:


Clayton Tom is Back & Working with Calvin Once Again

Calvin Begay and Clayton Tom make a powerfully creative jewel duo. They are both tops in their repective fields, Calvin as silversmith and Clayon as a micro-inlayer. I posted a piece on my 11/09/07 blog entry stating that the team had split, but they are back under the same roof once again and working together on unique pieces such as the one shown here. Calvin did the silver work all by hand. It appears to be a cast piece, but in fact, it was done by silver overlay. Calvin demonstrated to me on Friday his technique for cutting out the silver. Calvin is soft spoken, but I still heard him fairly well over the din of his county western music. Calvin's a real cowboy, I note that he wears a good size rodeo buckle. Clayton works in a backroom where he grinds away at the tiny pieces of stones on his wheel to get them to fit into their tiny alloted spaces in the silver. I asked him about his design on this piece whereupon he pulled down a shred of ratty, corrigated cardbord from above his work station and showed me the inception drawing. From the conversation, I can be certain he is a very traditional Navajo. He said he are not supposed to do Yei-be-Chai image work in the winter, but he does. He went on to describe the physical consequences of violating this taboo. I was glad to hear that said consequences weighed in on the minor ailment scale. He told me much more, but between the grinding wheel and the loud rock music, I did not hear much of what he had to say.