Contemporary Traditions in Native American Jewelry
An Online Exhibition Presented By The Dancing Rabbit Gallery
Navajo Flute Music Courtesy of Andrew Thomas
in Native American Jewelry
in Native American Jewelry
Art always pushes the envelope – art always evolves.
Jewelry tells a story of culture, and Native American artists look to tell their cultural stories with historic designs interwoven into the modern world.
In The Beginning...
Medicine Crow of the Apsaroke Tribe,
by Edward S Curtis 1908
The origins of jewelry are shrouded in the mists of time. Used for worship, adornment, and counting wealth, jewelry likely started as shiny or irregularly shaped objects found by people as they went about their daily lives. These objects may have been stones with bright colors, or representations of aspects of the world in which they lived, but they gained intrinsic meaning above and beyond the material aspect of the actual stone.
Long ago, the Native Americans used their jewelry as a sort of currency or collateral when trading with the European settlers, and jewelry making quickly became an indispensable element of the tribes’ economic survival.
Even today incredible skill and craftsmanship passed down through generations of family members, goes into each piece to create beautiful jewelry with the timeless traditional designs that are so recognizable.
Turquoise, which is a soft gemstone, has been utilized by Native Americans for a long time, as the gem is widely found in the American Southwest. It is hard to know exactly the mine from which the turquoise was extracted, as even within a single mine, the matrix of turquoise and substrate materials like copper may vary. But some mines have strong tendencies, like Sleeping Beauty or Number 8, and experts can recognize the likelihood that a specific mine produced a specific stone. # 8 spiderweb turquoise reflects the number of the mine found in the Lynn mining district in Eureka County, Nevada, which is in the Northeast corner of the state. The mine has not produced turquoise for a number of years. The best, natural spiderweb material from the #8 Turquoise mine is rare and highly coveted today.
Jeanette Dale, Navajo
Nila Cook Johnson, Navajo
Natural #8 Spiderweb Turquoise is some of the highest quality turquoise and it makes stunning jewelry! It is noted for its golden-brown distinctive spider web matrix and unique bright powder blue background.
Piki Wadsworth, Hopi
The relatively unknown, Skyline Turquoise Mine is in Lander County, Nevada. Each of these exquisite natural turquoise stones is hand cut by the artist. The range of colors provides the most beautiful deep shades of turquoise, blue and green.
Piki Wadsworth, Hopi
These exquisite stones are natural Candelaria Turquoise. Candelaria turquoise deposits produced quality stones in shades of light sea blue to rich dark blue with varying colors of webbing. Today Candelaria turquoise is very rare and seldom seen. It is considered highly desirable.
The Morenci turquoise in this ring and cuff is of the highest gem quality. Master jeweler, Albert Lee, set each of the stones in both the ring and cuff in sterling silver with 14k gold accents and bezels on each side.
Tim Yazzie, San Felipe Pueblo
The Mineral Park mining district outside of Kingman, Arizona USA has proven to be one of the largest deposits of Turquoise on earth. This Turquoise is better known as "Kingman Turquoise“. The high grade natural is very rare making it quite valuable. Green Turquoise
Although becoming scarce, green turquoise has been popular among collectors for generations. The bold vivid color variations of lime green, emerald green, and military green are unique to Nevada. Green turquoise can be found in the same mine alongside blue turquoise; it just depends on the chemical composition at the time of the stone formation.
Due to the rarity of natural green turquoise, many contemporary artists are using Gaspeite in their jewelry. Gaspeite is a rare mineral resembling green turquoise in appearance.
Matthew Charlie, Navajo
Albert Lee, Navajo
Verdy Jake, Navajo
Varying shades of green in the turquoise and in the gaspeite showcase the colors of these beautiful minerals.
The cuff is Royston turquoise; the ring is Ciraco Lake turquoise and the inset cuff is Northern Lights turquoise. The necklace is Gaspeite by an unknown artist.
Man has had a fascination with gold for many millennia, and it is highly sought as a base material for elegant jewelry. The warmth of the color creates a platform for almost any design or stone, and the tensile strength of gold in its different karats allows the artists to work the materials into intricate molds and shapes. Gold stays pure in its chemical composition, and does not react to skin oils or moderate wear.
Inlaid with natural Blue Gem turquoise, gold and natural Australian opal, this starburst pendant by Michael Kirk shimmers in the light.
The iridescence of the opals emphasizes the slivers of 14K gold in earrings by Thomas Barbre.
This incredible cuff of 18k gold has been cast in tufa stone. Steve then placed 105 Australian fire opals individually in perfectly raised bezels to highlight the deep fire of each stone. The beautiful design of the fiery hued opals evokes the look of corn which is vital to the Hopi.
Natural Kingman spider web turquoise is quite rare, making up only one percent of product mined at the Kingman Mine. Piki accents the undulating colors of this rare turquoise with 18k gold accent beads.
The deep, rich blue of lapis lazuli makes it a favored counterpoint to the lighter colors of the turquoise stone. These stones have been mined since ancient times, and exported around the world.
Lapis is a harder stone, and takes a very nice shine when polished. The highest quality stones have a blue to purplish-blue hue and an even color.
The deep blue of lapis seems to pop when accent colors are added. Here both artists have enhanced the lapis with the accents of sterling silver, Onyx, Tigers Eye, Spiny Oyster, Gold and Silver overlay beads.
Albert and Ken allow the high quality of the stones to shine in this statement ring and cuff. The marvelous deep dark blue of the natural lapis is enhanced only by the sparkle of the highly polished sterling silver.
Channel inlaid stones of turquoise, lapis and sugilite bring harmony to this contemporary cuff. The accents of the sterling silver native designs on either side of the cuff add to the uniqueness of the design.
The origin of pearls is simple – the mollusk has an irritation, and forms a secretion around it – thus, the pearl is formed.
Most pearls are irregular and discolored, but there are some that are spherical and perfectly white. These are what are most commonly found on the elegant strands of dress pearls.
However, the very rare, highly prized Tahitian Black Pearl is finding its way into Native American jewelry. These pearls come only from the black lip oyster around the waters of Tahiti, and are very versatile in jewelry settings.
Exquisite Tahitian pearls adorn the tiny flowers on these unique cuttlefish bone cast pieces. The cuttlefish, the dragonflies and the pearls are all water symbols, emphasizing the importance of water in the arid Southwest.
Top jewelers will tell you
that the best coral comes
from the deep waters of the
Mediterranean. The deeper
the water, the more rich and
vibrant the deep red color becomes.
Unfortunately, the demand for deep
water Mediterranean coral has
resulted in a dramatically depleted
supply, and this has resulted in dyed
substitutes being sold in the market as
Native Americans began to use coral shortly after it was introduced to them by the Spanish in the 16th Century. This beautiful red stone intrigued them. Strands of deep red coral were valued and worn as a form of currency. Coral is one of the most sought-after materials used by Native American artists.
The cuttlefish bone design forms the backdrop, while the deep red Mediterranean coral cabochon provides a dramatic juxtaposition to the shiny sterling silver band floating above the cuff. The deep red coral in the earrings is enhanced with 18k gold swirls.
Very small inlaid triangles of coral accent a traditional rug design, which is edged with very tiny raised coral cabochons. In the middle of the cuff, a cobblestone row of raised inlaid cabochons of very vibrant natural Mediterranean coral are separated by very tiny sterling silver bands and two beautiful pieces of turquoise.. Dan Jackson is famous for his Navajo rug design. This one is set with Mediterranean Coral in sterling silver.
He honors his parents in his jewelry designs – his father with the sterling silver jewelry and his mother by incorporating the designs of the rugs she wove. Award-winning artist Ken Romero’s rich heritage serves as an inspiration to his work and is reflected in the unique, one-of-a-kind jewelry he creates. This gorgeous double butterfly pendant is a reflection of his elaborate lapidary work. Ken carefully cuts directly from the finest coral and then shapes each piece to fit the most intricate design. Micro Inlay
The traditional approach to fastening gemstones to a base material is with the use of bezels or in premade silver channels called channel inlay.
An even newer and more difficult technique is that of micro-inlay. The gemstones are cut in very thin, precise slices and stacked together, often to create a picture or tell a story. This technique takes very steady hands and nerves of steel. Micro inlay techniques illustrate how dynamic and fabulous Navajo jewelry can be. This beautiful necklace took many tedious hours to create using the smallest of natural stones and sterling silver. Abraham created the beads to match the sterling silver inlay design on the pendant. This trapezoidal bolo features intricate micro-inlay of beautiful turquoise, jet, mother-of-pearl and pen shell. These gemstones balance perfectly with the top layer of sterling silver and carved inlaid gemstones. The center of the pendant is flanked with sterling silver panels carved with water symbols. Stone to stone inlay requires a great deal of skill and very steady hands. The intricate and delicate designs in the jewelry of Abraham and Alvin exemplify their mastery of this technique in the following pieces. Jolene takes a very modern twist on the age old technique of mosaic inlay. She carefully inlays beautiful stones on Longhorn steer horns. Horn is a very tough and elastic material. Each stone is hand cut and placed to an exact fit on these beautiful bracelets. This dragonfly cuff features beautiful inlay of jet, Chinese turquoise and mother of pearl elegantly surrounding a wide sterling silver cuff. Each wing of the dragonfly is accented with mother of pearl and jet strips along with a bit of the same twist wire found on the cuff. This incredibly complex designed contemporary sterling silver bracelet of delicate micro inlay has a turquoise Yei figure in the center wearing a beautifully detailed head dress of various stones. Cobblestone and Corn Row
Similar to a cobblestone road, where the pavement consists of individual stones that may or may not be particularly even, cobblestone inlay is a technique where gemstones are cut and set into the bezel or channel.
The surfaces of the stones are not flat across, creating interesting dimension and contrasts of the different gemstones utilized. Often, the stones are fitted at angles to each other, similar to a courtyard stone pattern.
A similar inlay pattern called cornrow has the stone pieces all laid in parallel, like corn kernels on a cob. The edges of each stone are usually rounded.
Ken Romero, Taos Pueblo The uniqueness of cobblestone and corn row inlay designs require the artists to shape each stone and individually set them in a pattern between tiny pieces of silver. Steve, Alvin and Ken are masters at the delicate art of cutting of stones to create these inlaid patterns. This tufa design by Harrison Jim puzzles the stones together in a mosaic cobblestone style. All of the gemstones are surrounded by heavy sterling silver that has been made using tufa casting techniques. The silver is finished with a natural rock grain texture. The stones flow into six cut out arrowheads. Tufa Cast
Someone once said, “What is old is new again.” The technique of tufa casting is not new, but it is extremely time consuming and delicate work.
The artist begins with two lava (tufa) stones. The stones form the opposite sides of the mold. The stones are carved into the shape and pattern desired by the artist, and then bound together. The molten silver is poured into the mold and allowed to cool. When cooled, the mold is separated and the casting is removed. The artist then polishes the portions of the casting that should be polished, and leaves the rough tufa impression on the remainder. Each tufa mold commonly makes only a single piece of jewelry. While requiring great skill and precision, tufa stone allows an artist to be a little more creative. Here Erik has enhanced his tufa designs with beautiful stones. Marlin has used the tufa cast technique to create a contrast in textures with a highly polished smooth edge surface and a center of textured sterling silver. The center of the cuff houses beautiful stones of lapis, turquoise, coral and sugilite with a cobblestone inlay. Spiny Oyster
Spiny oysters have been harvested for food for the past 15,000 years or so, and the hard, decorative exterior shells rapidly became favored as both jewelry and currency. The spiny oyster is misnamed, as it really isn’t an oyster. They actually fall in the same family as scallops. The spiny oyster is also known as spondylus. The spiny oyster has a wonderful, vibrant orange color that looks fantastic on its own or paired with other gemstones. Tommy Jackson and Albert Lee have expertly cut, ground, and polished the spiny oyster to showcase the beautiful deep orange-red colors. The spiny oyster has a wonderful, vibrant orange color that looks fantastic on its own or paired with other gemstones. Jay Bobelu has expertly cut, ground, and polished the spiny oyster to showcase the beautiful deep orange-red colors. He has complemented it with vibrant jet and turquoise. The trapezoidal spacers of spiny oyster form the beautiful link between the top and bottom- half of the necklace. The lower half of the necklace is three separate graduated strands of Sleeping Beauty turquoise heishi with spiny oyster corn tabs strung at the bottom of the loop in classic jocla style. Tim has meticulously overlaid a sterling silver feather design into the lower wings along with two small dots of 14k gold. The upper wings have carefully placed pieces of spiny oyster and turquoise. The body of the butterfly is black jade accented with turquoise. These beautiful natural stones provide a colorful contrast to the highly polished sterling silver butterfly. Unique Designs
A number of talented jewelers are developing unique designs for their works, incorporating many traditional design elements with more contemporary presentations.
Each artist strives to blend the traditional motifs and patterns of their culture with a new, innovative look. They are telling a story of the evolution of their cultures with their art, in addition to creating stunning jewelry.
Unlike traditional Native American jewelry, these unique designs fit into almost any ensemble or style, and are not identified as solely Native American in style. Duane Maktima’s and David Gaussoin’s collaboration collar with a stylized naja and druzy is a stunning modernistic interpretation. The pendant is tufa cast and is long with stepped accents There are three free-form strips of gold that dangle from a loop ring. Vern Begay specializes in tufa cast work that merges traditional and contemporary designs. This stunning bracelet incorporates sterling silver and gold with Mediterranean coral, Number #8 turquoise, and diamonds. This gorgeous sterling silver bead necklace is accented with a beautiful dragonfly. Each of the individual beads is stamped with a variety of designs. The larger beads are separated by smaller beads in order to showcase the stamping. This stunning and unique sterling silver cuff is designed in shape of an arrow, which is inlaid with turquoise and coral. The end of the arrow is adorned with a dangling feather, also inlaid with turquoise and coral. This magnificent bracelet is both traditional and innovative at the same time. This unique roll milled cuff of sterling silver flows with swirls and circles both on the top and the underside. It is topped with Althea’s signature sterling silver dragonfly.
The swirls and circles ever reminiscent of the importance of water. Jan Loco prefers the unusual look of individual rock formations to enhance and texture of her jewelry. She pours the molten sterling silver onto a rock and hammers it to achieve unique designs. This rock hammered sterling silver turtle can be a pin or a pendant. Each of the seven sterling silver lightning bolts arrows are separated by handmade sterling silver beads and beautiful chunks of Mediterranean coral. The lightning bolt arrows are a tribute to the Hero Twins of Navajo origin lore and represent strength and perseverance. All of the images are copyrighted by the owners of The Dancing Rabbit Gallery.
Please fee free to let your friends know about this Exhibition, which will run as a Featured
Exhibition on The Dancing Rabbit Gallery website, www.thedancingrabbitgallery.com,
through the end of September, 2021. Music