For tens of thousands of years, humans have used different forms of jewelry for adornment, status, signs of wealth, and even functionality. Jewelry goes beyond a simple need for clothing – it nourishes our ego and self-esteem.
Jewelry making has evolved significantly from early attempts to put holes in shiny stones and string necklaces. The use of base metals led to the formation of fitted jewelry, such as rings and bracelets, and also led to the ability to attach gemstones to metal foundations.
When the Spanish explorers brought the skills of silversmithing with them to the American Southwest, Native Americans rapidly learned the techniques and utilized them to create works of art reflecting their cultures. The Diné, for example, became known for capturing the spirit of large natural gemstones and incorporating them into their jewelry. Zuni pueblo jewelers headed in the direction of carving tiny petit point and needlepoint stones, and Santo Domingo jewelers created fabulous heishi shell necklaces. Artistic expression abounded, and their techniques became more and more sophisticated.
Initially, stones were integrated with the base metals using prongs or bezels to hold the stones in place. This technique allows the jeweler to work with larger gemstones. One of my favorite jewelers in this area is Albert Lee (Diné), who shapes and polishes extremely high-quality gemstones and then places them in precise bezels. A single glance at one of his stunning cuffs or bolo necklaces is enough to elicit a gasp of admiration.
Steve LaRance (Hopi) is another artist who carefully shapes his stones to bring out the best qualities of both his underlying silver (or gold) foundation and the various gemstones he utilizes. He made me an unbelievable solid gold cuff with 105 hand-cut Australian fire opals mounted in rows on the cuff, and he named it White Corn. When I display it at shows, it often causes minor cases of whiplash as heads spin to see it. Marlin Honhongva (Hopi), the nephew of Charles Loloma, also uses high quality stones in his inlay.
Different heights of stone can create a dimension of depth, and this is done very well by a number of artists. Ken Romero (Taos pueblo) has created stacked stones on rings with shapes and colors that are quite reminiscent of the mesas of the American Southwest.
Another technique that evolved was the use of channel inlay. As the name implies, the artist creates a groove, or channel, into the foundation metal and uses the sides of the groove to hold the carved gemstone in place. As one can imagine, this requires a high level of accurate measurement when carving the gemstone, as a stone too small will simply fall out and a stone too large won’t go into the channel. Some artists even put different stones next to each other, creating contrast and even complex shapes. An artist I have recently started following is Tim Yazzie (Diné), who combines different stones and elegant metalwork into quite lovely bolos and cuffs for men and women.
And Native American artists have taken the technique of channel inlay a major step further into the world of micro-inlay. With this technique, the artist combines a very steady carving hand with a high magnification lens to shave very small slices of gemstones, which are painstakingly arranged to create images, and even pictorial displays. Two artists who excel at this are Abraham Begay and Alvin Yellowhorse (both Diné). The first pendant I acquired from Abraham is named “The Comet,” and pictures a comet streaking through the dark Southwestern sky. I also have an unbelievably intricate pictorial cuff from Alvin Yellowhorse, in which he used dozens of tiny slices to create a stunning pictorial of the Southwest. The Yei face in the middle has a protruding coral nose. A significant location, Shiprock, is featured against the starry night sky at one end. The more I look at this cuff, the more intricacies I see.
As with channel inlay, the stones carved for micro-inlay must be both precisely shaped and carefully fitted so that one doesn’t end up with a missing piece. I believe that micro-inlay is the current pinnacle of complexity for precision jewelry, but Native American jewelers are still striving to take their artistry to newer and even more awe-inspiring heights. Their jewelry tells stories about their cultures, and lifts the spirits of those who wear it. It nourishes the soul, and brings happiness to our lives.
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