Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Perfect Navajo Collection

Every collector wants to have the best things available within their particular budget. And every collector has their own idea of what the "best" really is. We have our own ideas, of course, and thought it might be interesting for readers to see what the talking heads at Turkey Mountain Traders consider to be the components to as near a perfect collection of Navajo Indian jewelry as finances will allow.


FIRST PHASE BELT--A really fine First Phase concho belt is the cornerstone of every major collection. Even if it isn't worn, it can be hung on a wall to serve as a piece of great art. And if the money allows for a great Second Phase as well, even better.

CLASSIC SQUASH BLOSSOM NECKLACE--Any really high quality piece from the pre-1920 era will work. With stones or without is not as important as the overall quality of the piece.

TURQUOISE NECKLACE--The original Indian jewelry. An old tab necklace with pump-drilled stones is hard to find, but well worth the effort.

CLASSIC BRACELETS--optimally, an all-silver with repousse would be included, as would one with a turquoise-set plate on a band. And a really fine row bracelet, because it is such an important form.

RING--here, it is a personal choice. It is far more important to have one you like that fits well than to have something "important and great" that you hate wearing.

OLD EARRINGS--Old Navajo earrings are rare, but a pair of pyroform drops, hoop-and-balls or pierced crescents should be in there. If you prefer and aren't as much of a purist as to origin, a great pair of Pueblo wirework earrings would be fine.

OTHER THINGS--important but rare objects such as manta pins, headstalls, outstanding buttons and early silver boxes are things that might never be worn, but they tell a great story about the development of the art. Plus, they're a lot of fun to look at.


A STONE SQUASH BLOSSOM NECKLACE--One thing about pieces made in the 1930s, 40s and 50s is that the turquoise is often superior to that found in earlier pieces. Many of the highly important classic mines were opened or became commercially viable in that era, and pieces with incredible Blue Gem, #8 and Bisbee turquoise can be found. You can also find 1970s pieces with amazing turquoise, but be careful to find pieces where the quality of the silverwork is also high (such as Carl Luthy studio pieces).

A PINE SPRINGS SANDCAST PIECE (probably a bracelet)--The silversmiths working near Pine Springs, Arizona in the 1925-50 period produced some of the finest cast pieces ever made on the reservation. John Adair went to Pine Springs to watch people like Tom Burnsides and Charlie Houck work, and in his incomparably valuable book on Indian silversmiths commented on the quality of the sandcasting done there.

A GREAT CLUSTER BRACELET--we're kind of cheating here, because the best ones were Zuni made, but the Navajo are known to wear them at every fancy dress opportunity.

A FRED HARVEY BRACELET--they are not major pieces, but to have a Navajo collection without a tourist trade piece would be ignoring the thousands of smiths who made them. Some of them, especially the ones with petrified wood, are actually quite nice.

EARLY SIGNED PIECES--Navajo smiths started hallmarking in the 1930s, and pieces by Fred Peshlakai, Austin Wilson and Ambrose Roanhorse are both important and incredibly well-done.

MODERNIST PIECES--by which we are mainly talking about White Hogan and Navajo Guild pieces from the 1940s and 1950s. The all-silver pieces done by the Guild are supremely elegant, and the White Hogan work of Kenneth Begay and the Kee brothers has been discussed at length in every study of the art.


THE BIG GUNS--modern Indian jewelry is very much name-driven. The finest jewelers have established their own styles, and can charge a premium for their work (especially if they work in gold). The absolute top of the ladder is occupied by people like Lee Yazzie, Raymond Yazzie, Vernon Haskie, James Little, Perry Shorty and Ric Charlie. There are other smiths doing very fine work, but those are some of the people who are more likely to be the big names people want in 30 or 40 years.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Future days for the website

Usually, I take the time in the blog to tell you things about our material. This time, I'm diverging from the norm a bit. I'd like to tell you some things about our website, and what you can expect from it in the future.

We have been somewhat aggressive in keeping our website as low-tech as possible, mainly because we have a deep-seated fear of complexity. To us, browsing the website should be a fun trip into a world we all enjoy, not a slog through an incomprehensible technological nightmare. This means no drop-down menus, and a cap on the number of items on the site at once. It means a website visitor can't see our entire inventory, but it also means that they can make it through everything they want to see without a bathroom break in the middle.

But, time marches on, and there are things we want to do with our website that require (gasp!) increased complexity. One of those things will involve videos, where we can speak directly to viewers and use some of our pieces to illustrate our points. We can hopefully do this without too much website revamping, and it should be ready to go in the next two or three months.

If you have any thoughts on the direction you would like the website to take, or any other features you would like us to include, please drop us a line any time. I don't think a streaming video feed from the gallery is in the cards, because nobody really wants to see what is going on there at two in the morning, but just about anything else is up for discussion.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Return to the Land of Buttons

A few years ago, we were lucky enough to be able to offer the Jay Evetts collection of Indian silver buttons and dress ornaments. It was the finest private collection of its type, put together over a span of 35 years by one of the most respected traders in the business. The finest examples from the collection have long since passed into private and museum hands, and it is not likely that we will ever see their like again.

Here's Jay, in all his glory.

The only way to find buttons and ornaments of that quality is to wait for them to come out of nowhere, which never happens, or to see if some of Jay's pieces come back on the market. That is what has happened, and we are again proud to offer three incredibly fine pairs from his collection. These were among the best pieces he had, and were sold before the collection was offered publicly in Santa Fe--making them completely fresh to the market.

The pair on the right is the largest and most "typical" of the three pairs--it is a large and very well-made pair of moccasin buttons, circa 1930. Each button is 2 13/16" in diameter, which is at the upper end size-wise for Navajo buttons.

Here is a closer view of the pair, showing the marvelous stampwork edges and repousse sunburst design in the middle. The turquoise are a wonderful pale blue with just a hint of black matrix. It is one of the finest pairs of large buttons from that era known to exist, and was one of the highlights of his collection. $1600 with custom stand (KN MH/006)

The center pair are not true buttons, but rather dress ornaments. The only difference between ornaments and buttons to the Navajo, who did not use buttons in the traditional sense, was the number of sew loops on the back--buttons had one in the center, while ornaments had two or more on the back. Both were used purely for decoration, especially when they were this large.

Each ornament is 2 1/4" high, and nicely decorated with stampwork and repousse. They date to circa 1930, and include some absolutely gorgeous Lone Mountain turquoise. Of all the pieces in Jay's collection, this pair contained the finest turquoise. $1500 with custom stand (KN MH/007)

Finally, the most dramatic of the three pairs. Technically, they are ornaments because of the pair of sew loops on the back, but the distinction is not important. What is important is the incredible quality of the silverwork.

By style and technique, this pair can be attributed to the Goodluck family, and are the only attributable ornaments in the entire collection. The quality of the work is absolutely incredible, and the scale of the ornaments (2 1/2" high) is quite imposing. They would look at home on a top quality concho belt, but there is no evidence that they were ever made as anything other than a pair of ornaments. They date to circa 1940, and are SOLD with custom stand. (KN MH/003)

For those of you who are looking for something slightly smaller in Navajo buttons, we have the collection below, all of which were collected at the Oljato Trading Post in Utah before 1940. Prices on them vary, but range from $10 up to $100 for the largest and most elaborate. If any interest you, give us a call and we can pick some out for you.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Every picture tells a story, some more than one.

We've handled a lot of squash blossom necklaces over the years, ranging in quality from the ridiculous (we try to keep those to a minimum) to the sublime. Tens of thousands of them were made, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has become the one thing that springs to mind when people think of Indian jewelry. The basic configuration has remained unchanged for over a century--silver beads and 3 or 4 petal blossoms, with a naja at the bottom. Some have no turquoise at all, some have turquoise set in the naja, and some have turquoise all over. The differences lie in the details, and it is often impossible to see what makes one better than another until you actually hold and compare the two.

We aren't good enough at this internet thing for you to be able to hold a piece through the computer, but using a lot of close-up photos is a pretty good substitute. And with this particular squash blossom necklace, every picture has something very interesting to say.

Here is N 1705, a Navajo squash blossom necklace from circa 1905-1915. At first glance, the most unusual thing about it is the crosspiece with three set turquoise above the naja. An unusual feature, to be sure, but there is a lot more to learn from this piece.
If you look closely at the stones on the ends of the naja's arms, you can see that the bezel looks a bit wrinkled. In other pieces of this age, the bezel would have notches cut out so that the thin silver could be folded over the stone. This smith cut in some notches, but made them very small, so from a distance the bezel appears to be one of the smooth bezels that Navajo smiths learned to make ten years later. The other four stones have bezels that look even smoother and better done, but on close inspection each bezel has a little nick or imperfection that allowed the smith to smooth out the silver--still, they are more skillfully done than the two at the terminals, which leaves open the possibility that the crosspiece and the stone drop in the middle were added on to the naja a few years after it was originally made. We can't say for sure, but it was not at all uncommon for Navajo jewelry to be modified to fit the changing tastes of the owner, who was probably a relative of the smith.

From the reverse, you can see some really interesting things about the naja. First, the tri-wires
are clearly hand-drawn (note the unevenness of the flat surfaces). Second, the thin wire set in the middle is not actual ropework, as would be expected in a piece from the 1920s or later. Instead, it is a single wire that is smooth on the back, which means that the "twisting" pattern on the front was done by scoring with a chisel or file. Not easy to do, especially with such a thin wire. And finally, the label on the back is some sort of collection number, most likely from a museum. It could have been left to a museum in 1965 (hence the "65" at the beginning) and then deaccessioned later on. Since many museums started life as large private collections, and were run as such up until very recent times, it is not surprising or uncommon to find pieces that show signs of being part of one at one time or another. Though this necklace is of museum quality, a local historical society or non-Indian museum would have no use for a piece like this and would deaccession it to raise funds for more appropriate acquisitions.

Here is a closer look at the faux ropework on the front of the naja. Notice how when it is viewed up-close, the irregular spacing of the notches becomes clear.

The other interesting part of the necklace is the beads and blossoms. Towards the bottom, here is how they appear:

The beads have raised seams in the middle which have been filed flat. The round part of the blossoms shows less of a raised seam, which means thay could have been done by a different smith. Oddly, the flat part of the blossoms is untouched on one edge, but notched on the other.

When you go higher up the string of beads, you see a change (which I marked with an arrow).

The higher beads (on the left) are slightly smaller and rounder. At some point, probably pretty early in its life, this necklace either broke and was restrung with some smaller beads, or was lengthened (quite a bit) with the smaller beads. The small beads are quite old and well-done, and it is a time-honored tradition among the Navajo to maintain their necklaces by restringing them when necessary, so it only adds another chapter to the interesting history of the piece. Also, two of the blossoms are missing a petal, with only two instead of the original three. We don't know exactly what happened along the road, but clearly this is a piece that has had an eventful life.
The necklace has a straight length of 28", and the naja is 2 9/16" wide. The special internet price on it is SOLD. If you have any questions about it, please give us a call.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The answer to a common question

After "Can I use the bathroom?" and "What's your dog's name?" the most commonly asked question in our gallery is "Which piece is the oldest?" When our entire inventory is taken into account, the answer is this:

It is an Iroquois beaded bag that dates to circa 1820, and since the Navajo weren't producing metal jewelry at that time, none of our silver can match that. But if you limit the selection to jewelry, here is the winner:

This pair of copper hoops has a very interesting history. Most of our pieces come from private collections where they were appreciated and treasured. Sometimes, they weren't understood, but the owners at least knew they were around. With this pair of earrings, neither was the case. They were found in a drawer, in a very interesting location--Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Fort Huachuca dates back to 1877, which is probably about when these earrings were made. The fort is not in Navajo country, but it is certainly in Apache country, and trade between the Apaches and Navajo, both willing and unwilling, was extremely common in the 19th Century.
The copper wire hangers are recent additions, of course.

The wire has clearly been hand-worked--note the "seam" visible in the photo above at about 7 o'clock. There is also pitting that is consistent with someone working copper in a somewhat crude fashion.

Items like this can be very difficult to date, but the hand-worked character of these hoops, coupled with the wear and filework you can see on the ends, make anything other than a 1865-1880 date unlikely. The collection history also makes a 20th Century date nearly impossible, because Indian trade at the fort (which is not exactly located in a bustling population center, even by Arizona standards) would have been essentially shut down in the 20th Century.
Here is the earrings without the hanging wires. You can see the tapering ends, very characteristic of early hoop earrings. For anyone interested in wearable history, this pair of earrings is a real treasure. They are just over 1 1/4" in diameter, and actually are
more of a coppery color than shows in the photos. Their price is $895.
If you have any questions about them, please give us a call at (480) 423-8777. We are very proud of them--they are some of the earliest we have seen. To see another pair of early copper earrings, go to page 103 of the Frank and Holbrook book for a hammered pair in the Fred Harvey collection at the Heard Museum. There are also many examples of similar hoops done in silver throught the book.