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Gems of Generations

February 6, 2004 - May 15, 2005


Gems of Generations includes 50 examples of historic and contemporary jewelry primarily drawn from gifts and loans made to the Museum by local art collectors, and photographs by T. Harmon Parkhurst and Carl Moon taken on reservations during the early 20 th century depicting Native Americans wearing examples of traditional clothing and jewelry.  Contemporary pieces include the work of Victor Beck, Verma Nequatewa, Clarence Lee, Russell Lee, Roger Tsabetsaye, and Jesse Monongya. (right: Hank and Olivia Whitethorne, Southwest, Navajo, Bracelet, ca. 1990. Gift of Bernard and Teresa Bressler, 2004.5.1)


Jewelry making is one of the oldest forms of indigenous art, an ongoing tradition that has continued for thousands of years.  This exhibition, drawn from both the gifts made to the Museum by Teresa and Bernard Bressler and objects borrowed from their extensive collection, as well as historic photographs by Carl Moon and T. Harmon Parkhurst from the Museum's collection, demonstrates how Southwestern jewelry combines personal adornment with cultural expression.  The Bresslers have collected many types of art for a long time, with Native American jewelry being a particular favorite.  Mrs. Bressler remembers being awestruck as a child upon seeing the American Indian jewelry that was for sale at B. Altman's in New York City. It sparked her interest, resulting in her years of traveling, meeting Native artists and collecting fine examples of their work.

Jewelry tells the story of traditions, technological innovations, and cultural encounters.  This story begins in the prehistoric southwest, among the ancient Puebloan and desert cultures of the Anasazi, and Hohokam, and continues to the present day.  The uses and references to shell and turquoise are found throughout Pueblo and Navajo beliefs, through prayers and regalia. These materials were linked with growth, renewal, healing and protection. Other natural materials, including malachite, pipestone, clay, and wood were fashioned into beads, necklaces, earrings, and other objects used not only for personal adornment, but also as trade items throughout the Americas, long before the Europeans arrived.

The first Europeans to arrive in the Southwest were the Spanish, who named the early inhabitants they found living in agricultural villages the Pueblos.  The Spanish also came in contact with other tribal people, now known as the Apache and Navajo, who had a nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering.  Throughout their history the Navajos have adapted ideas and objects from other cultures into their own, including potterymaking, weaving, and silversmithing, which they learned from their encounters with the Pueblo and Spanish people.

Metals such as brass, copper gold or silver were not used in Southwestern jewelry until after the arrival of the Europeans, especially the Spanish in the Southwest. The first Native Americans in the Southwest to learn silversmithing were the Navajos.  The Spanish and Mexicans traded with the Navajos for brass, copper, and silver objects and ornaments.  The Navajos did not work with silver until around 1850.  At first, they used Mexican coins which they melted into bars, then hammered into sheets to be worked into jewelry and other objects.  This changed as traders started to supply the Navajos with sheet silver, tools, and design ideas.

Most jewelry was produced by the Navajos and Pueblos for their own use or in trade with each other.  However, the advent of the railroad in1880 brought the tourist trade, opening up a whole new market for Native artisans as well as creating a new relationship between the trader and the American Indian artist. The impact of traders upon designs and the market can never be underestimated.

The tourist trade became very important within the two thousand year-old jewelry-making traditions of the Southwestern tribes. Utilitarian objects such as ketohs, the items worn to protect the wrist from the snap of the bowstring, became personal adornment when made from silver embellished with turquoise and stampwork. Concha belts are adapted from the Plains tribes hair ornaments, and squash blossom necklaces were derived from ornaments found on Spanish clothing and horse bridles.

With the commercialization of Native American jewelry, personal aesthetics were replaced by consumer demands and Native artists found themselves concentrating on piecework at production centers to meet the market for inexpensive jewelry.  To protect the integrity of the art, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board was formed in 1935, and other organizations were founded by concerned traders and artists who wanted to abolish the mass production of Native objects and to focus on quality craftsmanship.  Several government schools also started to teach silversmithing to stop the exploitation of this art form.  Coupled with the introduction of new tools and precious stones, an ongoing evolution in Native American jewelry design began.

By the 1950s, many individual artists moved away from traditional styles and forms and used jewelry as a means of personal creativity and expression.  In the 1960s, a Hopi artist, Charles Loloma, dramatically changed the direction of Southwestern jewelry with his Frank Lloyd Wright inspired designs. His work influenced countless artists and paved the way for contemporary jewelry design.

Today,  artists like Victor Beck, Verma Nequatewa, Clarence Lee, Russell Lee, Roger Tsabetsaye, and Jesse Monongya, all produce jewelry that is truly wearable art. Non-traditional materials like diamonds, lapis lazuli, sugilite, opals, and gold are now used, along with traditional turquoise and silver.  These contemporary artists use jewelry designs as personal artistic statements and have initiated new traditions that have been central to the remarkable evolution of Southwestern American Indian jewelry from craft to art.

 -- Twig Johnson, Curator of Native American Art 

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