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Contemporary Jewelry

Over the last sixty years three artists have been chiefly responsible for innovation in jewellery making in the Southwest: the Navajo Kenneth Begay (1913-1977) and the two Hopis Preston Monongye (1927-1987) and Charles Loloma (1921-1991). Their artistic talent and technical expertise have inspired generations of jewellrey designers among the American Indians.

Kenneth Begay, the father of modern Navajo jewellery, created innovative designs, drawing on Navajo patterns and adding new materials to the traditional ones. He achieved refined and expressive creations featuring turquoise and coral, gold and diamonds. Preston Monongye incorporated images of katsinas in his creations, making his name by perfecting the casting technique using tufa cast60, and drawing on ancient pictographic symbols which he remodelled and enriched.

Charles Loloma, perhaps the most celebrated of the modern jewellers in the Southwest, was born in 1921 into a traditional Hopi family. He learnt the arts of pottery and painting and came to jewellery making in the mid-1950s. He maintained a profound respect for tradition, and was able to unite elements from his Hopi background, such as the technique of intarsia inlay using semiprecious stones, with a modern aesthetic sensibility. His most notable achievement was to turn the imperfections of nature into assets, emphasising the harsh qualities of metal and stone. He would frequently proclaim that “beauty is in all the things that surround us, in the environment, in culture, in ceremonies”.

He passed on his craft to his niece Verma Nequatewa, who started on her apprenticeship while still a girl and worked at his side for two decades. When Loloma closed down his gallery in 1989, Verma opened a studio of her own called Sonwai (“beautiful” in Hopi), making a name for herself in America and worldwide. She was very skilful in blending the Hopi tradition, her uncle’s teachings and her own talent for stone cutting and jewellrey making, creating jewels based on the pure form of her materials including coral, “combining the best ideas with the best materials” (fig. D 60516 A & B).

The true intermediary between the Indian traditions and the Italian creative spirit was Frank Patania. He was born in Messina in 1899 into a family that had been working precious stones for generations. When his family emigrated to New York, he found work aged 19 with the New York jewellers Stern & Company. In 1924 he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Santa Fe for treatment. This trip brought about a drastic change in his life and his vocation. Fascinated by the silverware that the natives produced, Patania began producing some himself and in 1927 opened a shop in the Plaza di Santa Fè, opposite the railway station. Called the Thunderbird Shop, it sold his creations and other local artefacts. The surge in tourism, fuelled by the legends of the American frontiers, proved highly beneficial for his enterprise. Starting from local tradition, in which silver and turquoise predominated, Patania went on to develop a style of his own notable for its refined lines and finish (fig. D 70074) which reflected the taste he had inherited from Italian culture and the floral patterns typical of art deco. The balanced designs were enhanced by the use of precious Mediterranean coral which he chose with meticulous care on his trips to Italy during the fifties. His creations are now prized and conserved in numerous museums and American collections.

During the Great Depression and after World War II the widespread financial hardship meant that precious materials had to be replaced by celluloid obtained from old batteries and records and other objects in everyday use. This was the origin of the so-called “battery-backed jewellery” in which the traditional inlay technique was preserved but using cheap, easily available and recycled materials to produce the mosaic (fig. D70073).

During the first half of last century the jewels produced by the Zunis became steadily more elaborate, making use of composite materials as well as silver and turquoise. Now the jewellery making trade, which provides an income for half of the entire Zuni population, features above all turquoise and coral, inserted in small slender mounts, known as “needlepoint technique”61 , (figs. D60349, D60352, D60358, D60356,) or in mosaic work with mother of pearl, turquoise, coral and jet (figs. D60351, D60348, D60357, D60359, D70087, D60521), designs which are extremely elaborate and highly prized by collectors the world over.

Another technique which is typical of Zuni output is the intarsio channel work, developed in the years 1930-40 with the support of C. G. Wallace. This involves creating a series of metal compartments into which semi-precious stones have to be painstakingly inserted. The mosaic design is defined by lots of contiguous sections bounded by a thin thread of silver. It recalls the cloisonné technique, with stone tesserae instead of enamel (figs. D60347, D60355, D70087, D70044, D70046, D70047, D70078).

The contemporary jewellery of the Southwest is characterised by daring colour schemes, angular geometric patterns and the use of silver, turquoise and coral. This simple combination actually unites two traditions of ornaments: that of the Pueblos, who since time immemorial have been accomplished lapidaries, and that of the Navajos, skilful silversmiths who, as we have seen, from the end of the 19th century became the first to cultivate and disseminate this art among other Indian groups. Nowadays the jewels of the Navajos, Zunis and Hopis are known throughout the world, covering an enormous range of typologies, made to meet specific requisites and also for the tourist and international markets. The productions combine very similar forms and styles, and it is not always possible to distinguish whether an item was made by a Navajo, Zuni or Hopi craftsman. Nowadays many Navajos can be seen wearing jewels produced by the Zunis. Some typologies of Zuni creations cater for the Navajo taste for large ornaments with abundant inset precious stones. The contrast between the blue of turquoise and the bright red of coral is particularly striking. The quality of coral preferred by the Navajos is intense and homogeneous in colour, as seen in some of the items made by Zuni craftsmen (figs. D60360, D70092).

Among the Pueblos the Santo Domingoans have always been famous lapidaries and skilful grinders of turquoise stones and seashells. They were the creators of the heishi (“seashell” in the Keresan idiom), which traditionally referred to necklaces made of shell pearls, while nowadays it indicates small discs or cylinders made by hand from various materials. To produce the minuscule beads the raw material (seashells, stones or coral) must be divided up into tiny square chunks of varying thickness, with a hole pierced through the middle. They are then strung together and shaped and polished on a grindstone. During this process between 60% and 70% of the raw material is eliminated. The necklaces which reproduce the traditional Pueblo typology often conserve a central pendant made of shell or jet with turquoise and coral intarsia work (fig. D70065).

60The technique of tufa cast consisted in creating a hollow in the surface of a block of the volcanic stone and pouring the metal into it. This gave the metal a characteristic mottled texture.

61The “needlepoint” technique is a special feature of Zuni production consisting in inserting wafer thin stones of the same dimensions close together in a specific mount. During the process about 2/3 of the gemstone was wasted.

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