Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Kenneth Begay and Charles Loloma--the wooden connection

In 1956, an innovative young Hopi potter and occasional jeweler named Charles Loloma moved to Scottsdale, Arizona into a studio space on Craftsman Court. There, he met many of the local artists who helped him along with his work and career, including Lloyd Kiva New and Fred Skaggs. His work progressed from purely silverwork to the creative use of stones and inlays for which he would become famous. By 1962, according to Martha Struever's LOLOMA, he was setting turquoise and coral like other Indian artists, but he had also started using the rather nontraditional material ironwood as well. It might seem an odd combination of the old and the new, but considering where Loloma lived and who some of his friends were, it was perfectly natural that ironwood would become one of his favorite and most commonly used inlay materials.

Just down the street in Scottsdale was the White Hogan, a shop which employed some of the best and most creative Navajo silversmiths of the day, including the Kee brothers and their cousin, Kenneth Begay. Loloma's admiration for Begay was no secret--he even made some pieces in Begay's signature "bar" pattern, as shown on page 62 of LOLOMA. One thing in which the White Hogan smiths were pioneers was the use of nontraditional patterns and materials, and one of their most commonly used inlay materials was ironwood. No other Indian artists of the day used ironwood in jewelry, and it makes perfect sense that the ever-open minded Loloma would learn about how to use this material from Begay and the others. By the mid-1960s, Loloma jewelry would often incorporate ironwood, as well as other unusual materials such as fossil ivory. Which brings us to...

This silver pendant by Loloma is in his "corn maiden" pattern, but unlike most other similar pendants, he used ironwood to simulate long, flowing brown hair. There is also turquoise and coral, but the colors that predominate are those of the ironwood and fossil ivory. It was likely made circa 1965-70, and is a fitting tribute to Begay and the other White Hogan smiths who introduced Loloma to ironwood.

Friday, April 19, 2019

What is so special about this bracelet? US ZUNI 1

The 1930s were a troubling time for Indian silverwork in the Southwest. Besides the devastation wrought by the Great Depression, there was the proliferation of low end (and low quality) tourist trade silverwork, much of which was neither handmade nor Indian made. To combat this, and to restore consumer confidence in the silverwork of the Indian Southwest, several programs were started, both by the government and by private entities. The United Indian Traders Association, which had been formed in 1931, began to give hallmark stamps to member posts and shops that agreed to follow certain quality and authenticity standards. The Navajo tribe itself formed the Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild (also known as the Navajo Guild), which produced some very fine silverwork. Even the US Government itself got involved, which leads to the bracelet here....
A very nice bracelet, with Pueblo-style wirework decoration and nice turquoise. A typical Pueblo bracelet, you might say, uncommon but not truly rare.
Until you look at the terminals, and see that there is a hallmark on one of them, which is quite unusual for a Pueblo bracelet...
On March 9, 1937, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) announced plans to distribute hallmark stamps to producers (mainly trading posts) that were willing to follow certain quality guidelines. The program was launched on April 6, 1938, and the stamps (US NAVAJO, US ZUNI, US PUEBLO and US HOPI, with associated numbers indicating the particular post or shop) were given to Kenneth Chapman and Ambrose Roanhorse, who were responsible for examining pieces and stamping those that met with their approval. By May 5, Chapman reported that he had stamped a total of 2,322 pieces, including 727 from the C. G. Wallace posts at Zuni and Sanders and Cedar Point, Arizona. (It is not known how many of those had the US ZUNI 1 mark used at Zuni, and how many had the US NAVAJO 2 mark used at Sanders and Cedar Point, which were both on the Navajo reservation. However, in our experience, the US NAVAJO 2 pieces are quite a bit more common.)

The program was well-intentioned, but unfortunately proved to be too cumbersome to last. The stamping program was shut down very soon after commencing, and those initial pieces stamped by Chapman and Roanhorse are probably the only ones they did. In any case, the hallmark on this bracelet proves that it was made at Zuni in 1937 or 1938, and was of sufficiently high quality to get the stamp of approval (literally) from Chapman and Roanhorse. A rare find, indeed.

For more information on this wonderful and important piece, give us a call at (480) 423-8777.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Bisbee--the turquoise mine that isn"t

It is a well known fact that turquoise is mined in many arid areas of the world, including Iran, Afghanistan, China and Mexico. For mot readers of these words, the most famous turquoise mines are those located in the American Southwest, with names like Lander, Blue Gem, Cerrillos and Lone Mountain. There are dedicated turquoise mines in all of these places, some still producing gorgeous turquoise, others sadly depleted and inactive. However, one of the most beloved types of turquoise is not actively mined, and in fact never has been--Bisbee, from Cochise County, Arizona.

This wonderful blue turquoise with a distinctive "chocolate" matrix has been on the market since the 1950s, but oddly, there is no true "Bisbee" turquoise mine. Instead, the turquoise deposits were located in the "Lavender Pit" area of the Cole Shaft copper mine. The money from copper mining in Bisbee dwarfs any profits to come from turquoise, so most early Bisbee came from "lunch pail" mining, where copper miners would take turquoise that had been loosened by blasting and put it in their lunch pails, to be sold later. Some even came from the waste dump, a casualty of the copper mining operations of then (and now).

In the early 1970s, a contract was awarded for a collecting and selling the turquoise, thus ending the lunch pail mining of earlier days. It is said that the overburden of the copper mine contains a great deal of turquoise, though extracting it may never happen for economic reasons. (Information courtesy of TURQUOISE: THE WORLD STORY OF A FASCINATING GEMSTONE by Lowry and Lowry.)

A bracelet containing five very fine Bisbee turquoise stones.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

When is a pictorial not a pictorial?

From the time I started in the business, around 137 years ago (or so it seems), I have been fascinated by the pictorial weavings of the Navajo. So much so, in fact, that when Tyrone Campbell asked me to help with the second edition of his seminal NAVAJO PICTORIAL WEAVING 1880-1950, I jumped at the chance. Now that the book it out, and getting good reviews from all our friends and relatives, I just have one thing to add to anyone who would care to listen: A WEAVING WITH LITTLE PICTORIAL ELEMENTS DOES NOT REALLY QUALIFY AS A PICTORIAL. Hear me out. To be a true pictorial, a weaving must have a pictorial design that serves as the central or most important element of the visual field. Does a Ganado with two little bow and arrow designs in the center qualify? To me, no. But does this qualify?
To me, darn tootin' it does, because while the cows are not the largest part of the design, they visually dominate the landscape of the weaving. Now, compare it to this one:
This one has pictorial elements, but they do not dominate like the cows in the first weaving. Therefore, it is a rug with pictorial elements, not a pictorial rug. A fine distinction, maybe, but an important one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Magic of Indigo

For those of you who love old American Indian textiles, both Navajo and Pueblo, there are two words that are absolute magic. The first is bayeta, which is a word for another day. The second is indigo, that most beautiful of all blues. (Not purple, mind you--that is another dye entirely.) But besides giving a pure and gorgeous blue, why are blankets with indigo so highly prized? Why do two nearly identical blankets sell for such different prices, with the one with indigo worth up to ten times that of its non-indigo cousin? The first reason is pure beauty--there is no synthetic blue dye that can match the richness and depth of a good indigo blue. Also, unlike synthetic dyes that can fade quite easily, indigo dyes are not "fugitive" and will only fade under the most extreme conditions. It is not unusual to find a blanket where every color shows serious fade except the indigo blue, which remains vibrant and deep. The second reason is both historic and economic--for many years, indigo was the only blue dye available to the Indians of the Southwest. Since it had to be brought to the reservation, often from overseas, it was extremely expensive, and normally only used by the best weavers. It was also very difficult to work with, especially considering urine was used as a mordant to fix the dye--disgusting, but necessary. Put it all together, and it was a serious enterprise to use indigo in a blanket, and it normally only appears as a highlight. I have never seen a blanket woven with an indigo blue field, for example. When synthetic dyes were introduced in quantity in the early 1880s, indigo fell completely out of favor. After all, very few people liked the idea of keeping a bucket of urine around to use with their dye. Notice that I have never said anything about rugs with indigo dye--in twenty-five years, I have only seen one, which must have been a special order. The rug era of Navajo weaving came after the decline of indigo use, when synthetic blues were readily available. As for Pueblo weaving, it had declined to a great degree long before that time. Collectors love indigo pieces because they represent an older and "more pure" era of weaving, when blankets were woven for native use and trade rather than purely for sale. That is the magic of indigo, in history as well as in beauty.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A very rare bracelet, one for the scholars

Every once in a great while, we come upon a piece so rare and interesting that we post it on our blog here, even if (like this one) it is not for sale. The last time we did this was with a dated silver bracelet--very interesting and informative for true students of the art and history of Southwestern Indian silverwork. This piece does not have a firm date like this one, but it has a feature that is so rare we wanted everyone to see it.

Here is the front view:
A very nice piece, with a good old turquoise on a stamped plate. The band is split, rather than being wires soldered together--much more technically challenging. And the side view:
You can better see the splits in the single silver band. A very fine old bracelet, circa 1915, but not an earthshaker just yet. But what is that at the end? Terminal stones? Now we're getting somewhere. And here is where it gets very interesting:
Two rough-cut stones inside old sawtooth bezels. Very interesting indeed. Not unheard of, certainly, but quite interesting. But here is where my photography fails me--if I could get close enough and put a bright enough light on those stones, the picture would show a red glow. Because there are not turquoise, but rather garnets--known to exist in old Navajo jewelry, but incredibly rare. This is the first and only time we have ever seen garnets set on an old bracelet as terminal stones. They are very rough looking, because these are naturally occurring river garnets, rather than mined garnets--garnets can be found in streambeds in the Southwest, and tend to be darker and rougher in appearance than their cousins that come from mines.

Anyone else out there ever seen anything like this? If so, please let us know.