Contemporary Spotlight: Leon Curley

Welcome to another Contemporary Spotlight – This series was created to celebrate the Contemporary Navajo artist, and get to know a little bit about their thought process when it comes to design, inspiration, and execution. These events will allow the viewer an inside look at the artist, and interact with them in a respectful manner. We hope you enjoy our time together.

Hello Leon, Thank you for being here today – We are very excited to have you in the group. Since we are new to your work, please give us a short Bio about your life prior to becoming a working artist.

LC: Good morning thank you for having me – Actually I’ve been a silversmith all my life, since I was about 11 or 12. I was taught by my grandfather & my dad – We were all taught to learn so we could stay off the welfare rolls.

DY: So how did your grandfather start you off or ease you into silversmithing?

LC: His way was to sit down and explain, “Here’s the torch, watch me and learn. One day what I teach you will help you survive, don’t be lazy.”

LC: He taught me many aspects of silversmithing, casting (both tufa n sand), stone cutting, polishing & inlay. Geeze too many to list.

DY: So was he teaching you and your siblings?

LC: At the time my older brother & my older cousin.

DY: As a child, was that daunting? or were you having fun?

LC: It was fun, we made candy money, toy money, money for clothing…. we thought we were rich.. LOL!

DY: That is amazing, I love that story – I gotta ask, did you have any injuries when you were learning?

LC: I don’t think I ever got injuries, if I did a slap up-side the head fixed it.. something you don’t see these days.

DY: Your grandfather must have been a very patient guy – I can’t imagine teaching 3 boys how to work with heavy tools! I’m sure you have wonderful memories?

LC: He made it fun, he told stories while we worked. He was very strict, he taught us using an old gas torch, eventually acetylene torches.

DY: We are going to ask you a series of questions that we ask all our artists, to allow us a look into your life as an artist. Please feel free to share images of your work, and projects underway as you answer these questions.

DY: Do you work on any other creative projects outside of silversmithing?

LC: Sounds good, current project 5 necklaces.


DY: Wow, do you make each individually unique?

LC: Yes I do. It’s a one man operation. Long days and long nights, I hire help but I’m particular how each piece is done.


DY: You mentioned to me once that your mother helps you still? can you expand on this?

LC: When I am in a bind and need round beads she supplies me – But I think she over charges me LOL! She’s 80 and still makes our beads, to help her with bills.

DY: How long has she been making beads?

LC: Man I don’t know, she has bead making dies that are over a hundred years old.


DY: The image you just shared, are these custom bead dies?

LC: Yes they are, my mom Doesn’t let anybody use them. They will never be replaced if the were hit wrong.

DY: So these are an example of her beads, and bead dies?

LC: Yes they are – She has dies as small as bb’s (mouse eyes) all the way to 20mm. All handmade dies.

DY: Do you remember the first piece you ever sold? What was it?

LC: I believe it was a men’s ring. I sold it to a trader by the name of Leon Ingram – One of the greatest and honest men I got to know. He eventually took me under his wing and taught me how to make bugs, butterflies, big cluster rings and almost everything. He was a silversmith, but the ideas he instilled in a 13 year brain – he taught me about being honest, and how to rate your work, I learned a lot from my friend.

DY:  Would you say he was your mentor?

LC: Earlier in life, yes. I’ve had many mentors, the greatest was my late dad, after I lost him a couple of months ago, I didn’t want to work anymore it brought to many memories when we sat side by side and worked, and argued about new pieces lol. In fact the necklaces I do now he designed n dared me to try.. maybe he knew they would keep me busy.


DY: What/Where do you look for inspiration before beginning a project?

LC: I look at my empty pockets lol! No, but really when I’m not busy I get into mischief, so I guess that’s where my inspiration comes from. A natural want to work and create, as my mentors used to say “keep your mind busy”.

DY: Of all the training, education, and past projects – What would you say was your greatest inspiration?

LC : The beauty in creating a piece not very many people can do, also the smiles and admiration when people receive a finished piece.. The smiles and reactions are priceless.

DY:  As a designer, I find it very challenging to make something ‘NEW’ – What is the most challenging part of your creative process? And why?

LC: Not sure, but sometimes it comes in a dream. I have a pad by my bed just for that reason, so I can quickly draw it out. Or I see a piece and think, I can do that and improve it, make it look great, or someone gives me a piece of junk to repair and I tweak it and make changes.

DY: What part of the silversmithing process do you enjoy most?

LC: The end product. Because I think, who says you can’t retrain a dysfunctional veteran to make something so beautiful?

DY: The end product is always the best, a feel of accomplishment and pride!

LC: You see, as a Smith a part of me goes into what I make. If someone orders something, I try to imagine the persona of that person. Sometimes it comes out completely different from what the person orders, plus I don’t work when I’m not in the right mind (ie: angry, sad) I have to be in a good mood because I don’t want to pass on the bad thoughts to the buyer.

DY: I noticed that your pieces have a nod to the Antique or vintage, what is the connection?

LC: Not sure, I’m not into the bright shiny stuff. The old ones never really polished their jewelry, in fact they used an acidic salt and brass brush. I’ve seen my granddad use that technique, plus I think old looks better.

DY: In your opinion, how do silversmiths of the past inspire what the contemporary artists create today? And why?

LC: The old ones had style, they created from the heart. Their tools were primitive, I appreciate the work they did. They can not be copied, they wore it as a personal item – Today it’s a means of survival.

DY: Did your grandfather wear his jewelry as well?

LC: Yes he did, also my grandmother did too. The work he did was beautiful.

DY: What pieces have you created and sold in the past that you wish you would have held on to?

LC: I made a concho belt for my ex-wife that has to have been my best work. It was almost perfect, everything was done just right. I made that piece with 16 gauge silver, 9 conchos, 9 butterflies, and all with deep blue morenci turquoise.

DY: Sounds Lovely.

LC: it was a beauty, but out of retaliation she sold it. It was priceless, but I heard she sold it for 500.00.

DY: Is there an emotional attachment to your pieces? why?

LC: If I make a piece for my girlfriend or my grandkids. Yes, because those pieces they’ll remember after I’m long gone

DY: I hope you know the pieces you create are very special – They are heirlooms.

LC: Thank you appreciate that.

DY: In your opinion, what part has social media played in the NA business whether positive or negative?

LC: Social media has been a good send. It really helps business, but on the down side people see your work and make sloppy pieces, and sell the same item for cheap.

DY: I completely understand, and hope you know the reason for this group is to celebrate the Contemporary artist. You guys are carrying the torch, and educating us on contemporary process as well as old world practices.

LC: I know that it also helps remember the old ones who instilled the quality of art, and beauty in life,

DY: In your opinion, what role does an artist play in society, and how do you use your work to achieve this?

LC: Art plays a big role in life. It makes you realize the beauty in creating, people don’t realize all the beauty in this world, some ppl go through life without seeing this.

DY: Finally, what are your future plans, and where do you hope to see yourself in 10 years?

LC: My plans are to build a big shop so you can teach others and vets. Silversmithing, leatherwork, silkscreen printing, casting and motorcycle repair – Basically whatever people want to learn. In 10 years I’m not sure, I live each day as it comes. Being who I am, my day is not normal, I get tired I go do something else.

Thank you for being here today Leon, and taking time out of your busy schedule to share with the group a little about yourself & work.  

The Fine Details: Hand-Domed Beads vs. Machine-Made Beads

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I am so excited to introduce our new series, “The Fine Details” – This series will focus attention on the Fine details in Navajo Jewelry – These topics are meant to spur healthy, respectful debates that focus on the topic given. We will kick-off this event with how to spot Hand-Domed Beads vs. Machine-Made beads. Please feel free to post photos, blog posts etc. to Support your research, or just ask questions. The idea is to strengthen our knowledge while collecting to help make better decisions when purchasing Native American Jewelry.

When I was just starting out as a collector I fell in love with squash blossom necklaces, and the beads were one my favorite parts. Like most young collectors, I would purchase anything I found while out on the hunt, and especially when the tag used words like, “Museum Quality” or “Dead-Pawn”. It wasn’t until later that I started to learn how to spot the difference in Hand-Domed beads from Machine-Made beads, which I will try to illustrate today, with the help of you, the members.

One of the hallmarks of Navajo jewelry is handmade, hand-domed Navajo silver beads aka: Navajo Pearls, aka: Desert Pearls. These beads have been made and worn since the mid 1800’s – The process of making handmade beads is very labor-intensive and includes: Measuring the heavy-gauge silver; Adding stamp work (if desired); Punching the central opening; Then lightly working/shaping each side of the ‘soon-to-be’ bead by lightly tapping the silver into a die.

The process of working with the die seems to be the most intense part IMO – The artist is literally tapping the stamped silver plates from one bowl of the die, making sure to start with the largest and keep working the piece through the various shapes to get the desired ‘cup’ shape, taking extreme care not to hammer out his stamp-work (if applicable). To the left is an example of a basic Die-Block.

Once the desired shape is achieved the artist will then ensure that both cups of the soon-to-be bead fit together properly – If not, then it’s wasted work and he/she will have to start over. Once the pieces are properly shaped and die-work is complete, the artist will sand the ends for a nice clean fitting and solder them together. The final step is to carefully drill a hole into each portion of the bead to allow the chain to pass through.

This process is the same for each bead, but keep in mind the process changes if there is graduated beads involved. In this case the artist will have to update their measurements, stamps and die-work but going through the same process.

I am posting a video I found on You-Tube that explains this process, although not the best quality, you get the idea for this labor-intensive work. I hope you will take a moment to watch, and educate yourself on the work the artists are still put into making handmade ‘pearls’ today.

In the Late 1960s and into today, there was a Native American Jewelry Boom in the US, and around the world. During this time is when we started noticing Machine-made portions of products, and the most noticeable is the machine-made ‘Bench-Beads’ or ‘beads’.


The introduction of the machine-made bead was just as it sounds, a machine was stamping/shaping these beads into desired cups (skipping the die process)


and made available to artists in 2 pieces, allowing them to purchase and put together. These were referred to as, “Bench-Made Beads” (if you are an artist, your opinion is greatly appreciated). One of the easiest ways to spot machine-made beads, is to notice the “Shoulders” or squared off curve of the bead. I’ve included a photo to illustrate:

machine made beads

Another Hallmark of Machine-Made beads is the very consistent flat openings to the beads that can only be produced by a machine Handmade beads will have a more inconsistent opening (although uniform in placement), with a ‘fluting’ effect from the punching of the hole in its infancy.  I’ve included a photo to illustrate:26168324_10215477957886357_1796773125495141205_n

Machine-made beads can be found anywhere from squash blossom necklaces, to strung pearl necklaces, to necklace extenders.

I want to be clear about the work from the 1970s – Some of the best turquoise mined was dug-up in the 70s, so most pieces created back then were all about the Turquoise with less emphasis on Silverwork.

Now the question is, “How does this affect value?” – If you can imagine the amount of work and time it takes to make each individual bead, as we have discussed, then you know they come with a hefty price and rightly so right? When it comes to handmade goods of any sort, nothing machine-made can compare; especially to the attention to detail and the Incredible care taken to deliver such a good. So to say Navajo Pearls are priceless, is an understatement.

The purpose of this article is to inform the collector of the fine details in Navajo Jewelry; To give the collector the information needed to make educated decisions and to discern between two products. Our Navajo Brothers & Sisters work hard to deliver their goods, and put pride in their work, so please remember this when negotiating, or asking values. To cheapen a handmade product, is to take away the care, appreciation, & Respect put into their goods.  
I am including a step-by-step picture-process of making a bead by artist Mike Schmaltz:

Thank you to Mike Schmaltz for contributing to this article.