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.  

Contemporary Spotlight: Tonya June Rafael


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 Tonya June Rafael, 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.

TJR: Hello everyone!!! My name is Tonya June a Rafael. I am Navajo and live east of Gallup , New Mexico. I was raised by my maternal grandparents Tom and Mary Rafael. They were both silversmiths. I remember as a young girl probably around 8 years old… out of curiosity, I wanted to try to solder. So, I turned on my grandfather’s acetylene torch while he was away taking a lunch break. I lit up the torch and smelted my grandfather’s work into a glob of silver. I got scared and threw it under the table because I knew my grandfather would not be happy. So, in my early childhood.. I’ve always been around Jewelry- silversmiths. When I turned 18, a year after high school.. I worked as a “peace-worker” for a Jewelry manufacturing company in Gallup. I barely knew the basics of silversmithing.

I remember I use to make two-stone rings for 1.25 cents each labor price. I got the hang of it and I would finish a 100 Rings per week, I made $125.00. I worked there for about 2 years.

Then I moved to the “big city” of Albuquerque to continue my education. I attended the University of New Mexico. As a poor college student, I worked at a few retail shops in Old Town. Because of my little experience in silversmithing, I was good at making sales in jewelry.

After about a couple years, I had to put school aside, and concentrate on making a living. I began to work at jewelry manufacturing companies as a production laborer. After about seven years, I acquired enough knowledge of jewelry making and retail, I decided to go in my own.

While I was in college, I use to sell other jewelry at Pueblo Feast Days, local fairs,, and flea markets. I went to college to be an elementary school teacher., so when I needed to do student teaching, I applied at Wingate school. I was denied a job. I was disappointed, and that’s when I decided to make and sell jewelry full time .. then I started to apply for juried art shows. Like the Santa Fe Indian market , Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, Autry in Los Angeles.. I was soooo thrilled, my first time applying to SWAIA, Santa Fe Indian market.. I got accepted. That was in 2004!

DY: ha ha ha, what was your G’fathers reaction to you melting his work?! and using his torch while he was gone?!

TJR: He looked and looked.. but I never told .. I’m sure he later discovered when he swept the shop floors. Yes, I still feel bad to this day.. Sorry Chei..

DY: That is quite the story, how old were you when you left school to go out on your own?

TJR: Right after High school, 17 or so.

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:  Where did you learn to fine-tune your Silversmithing & What attracted you stick with it, even through the tough times?

TJR: Well… after so many hours, days, weeks, YEARS.. of mishaps, goof-ups, mistakes.. PRACTICE.

DY: Did you have a mentor that guided you?

TJR: I always give my grandparents full credit for my silversmithing career. I say my work is not “fine-tuned” . I still have blemishes here and there. My late brother Lynol Yellowhorse, renowned jeweler was an artist at the Santa Fe Indian market. He was the one who told me to to join the “big leagues”

DY: that is wonderful, it sounds like family is a big inspiration for you – do you have any images of you and your grandparents? or of your earlier work?

TJR: My grandparents Tom and Mary Rafael, from Blackwater/Prewitt, New Mexico. My grandparents raised me from infancy.. so my first language was Navajo. They taught me my culture and the basics of silversmithing.

Member: what are your clans?

TJR: Yes, I’m sorry as a Diné, we are suppose to introduce ourselves by giving our clans. My maternal clan is Naakaii Diné – Born for (my Dad’s clan) Kiinyaanii, My Chei’s (grandfather) clan is Dees’ chiinii and my Naalis are the Irish biliagana

TJR:  (..on earlier work images..) Not really.. I didn’t have much confidence in myself.. I never thought of taking photos of my work.

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

TJR: Not really. My grandmother was a rig weaver. I use to help her with carding and spinning wool. But I never really had any interest in weaving.

DY: Fair enough – we all have our own paths.

TJR: I made my first piece in 2001 that I sold at the Gathering of Nations pow wow. I made a turquoise pin with drops around it , and sold it for a $100. I was so ecstatic!!

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DY: ha ha ha, that was going to be my next question! So this was about the time you were out on your own steam?

TJR:  Yes, when I wanted to make another piece. I was always drawn to jewelry with bright colored stones..

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

TJR: When I see natural turquoise, corals, lapis, spiny oyster shells, semi precious stones.. I get mesmerized!! I loooove. And cannot wait to get in my shop and start creating. .Usually it begins with stones, I see the designs in my thoughts.

DY: What was the inspiration behind the purses?

TJR:  I had a close friend from New York. I remember I bought a birthday card.. 5×7 size. One day, I came home and I was sitting at my desk in “deep thoughts” with that birthday card in my hand.. not realizing that birthday card I was bending it a “U” shape. Then, that “U” shaped bent card.. was my first idea to make a purse.. that’s where it first began. Then the rest is history..

DY: that is awesome! So literally came to you organically? i love this.

DY: One of the most challenging things for me when I design is, How do i make it fresh – What is the most challenging part of your creative process for you? And why?

TJR: The process of making Jewelry with any metals.. can be a dangerous task. You work many types of hazardous chemicals, heat temperatures, back-breaking from sitting on your behind long hours, and takes a toll on your eyes. I say the most challenging part of making jewelry is making jewelry.

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

TJR: My favorite part.. is selecting the stones.. the beginning stage- design.Soldering can be challenging, too much heat can result to crystallizing the bezels. Then you saw out the piece after soldering and acid-cleaned. Then if it’s a ring, solder on the shank, etc. My least favorite task in jewelry making is buffing and polishing. UGH! Sometimes, my cousin Greg will help me with buffing. Here’s My favorite part!! Setting stones!!! Why? Because I love to see the final stage, all polished and almost complete.

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

TJR: There are so many great awesome artists /silversmiths of the past, no question. We artists of today get our inspirations from our history, culture and nature.. all acquire into our art work today! My inspirations come from my grandparents, and many other artists.

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

TJR:  A very big part!! I have made many new contacts through Facebook and Instagram. (I deleted my Instagram acct). For the big part, social media has been positive in building my jewelry business. But there are also the down side too. There are “copy cats” out there. And yes, I’ve had some negative remarks and criticisms.

DY: How do you handle the copy-cats, and keep your brand moving forward?

TJR: Well, at first it was hurtful. It bothered me. Then master artist like Arland Ben, Elizabeth Whitethorne, and other friends told me to “carry on” and not to worry so much. Like an original Piccaso painting vs his “knock-offs” are not the same. True Art speak through it’s originality.

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

TJR: Society needs art! Art needs society! This world would be so boring without art. I wear jewelry everyday, it’s who I am and what I represent. So, as an artist… we make the world a little more “happier.” That is why I love to make jewelry.

DY: Finally, what are your future plans, and where do you hope to see yourself in 5 years?

TJR: Remain a healthy lifestyle.. detox from metals and chemicals every so often.. so, I can help, teach and share with others how to make and sell jewelry. Making jewelry’s one thing,,, how to sell jewelry is a whole other subject. Anyway, I would like to continue my career making new designs. Maybe do less shows. Spend more time creating one master piece instead making a bunch of rings or bracelets in a week..etc. I would like to attend other art classes, not only jewelry.. but other classifications. And I would love to travel the world.

DY: Thank you for being here today Tonya, and taking time out of your busy schedule to share with the group a little about yourself & work. We will be posting the full interview to our website, along with the pictures you shared to archive your story. I wish you the best of luck, and look forward to seeing more from you in the future.

TJR: Thank you all for reading my comments!! Thank you David Ybarra for this awesome group page! Thank you for allowing me to introduce myself and tell about my work. If you have any other questions.. please feel free to ask me anything. A couple years ago, I was a guest speaker to a fifth grade class. I talked about my jewelry career, and during q&a, a student asked how old I am. Lol. I’m 49 years old. I’ll be the big five-O in June!! Thank you all!!

Happy Anniversary!

February 15th marks the one year anniversary of our group. Although we’ve had our share of growing pains, together we’ve crafted a group of talented people who share a common thread – our love of Navajo jewelry. This past year, we have introduced several events, themes, interviews, discussions, and contributions from all members of the group. We have been introduced to contemporary working artists and will continue that celebration with other introductions to super-collectors, dealers, and museum curators.

To celebrate the one year anniversary, we are launching new additions to the group, an extension if you will. The first extension is “Navajo Jewelry: Antique, Mid-Century & Contemporary”, a blog-style website where we will house our interviews, discussions, and essays written for the “Fine Details” series:

The second addition to the Group is our own instagram account! You can find this by searching “NavajoJewelryAMC”. This instagram account will feature our favorite posts of the week (with permission from owners) and some of the happenings throughout the group. I hope you take some time to check it out. It will be great for inspiration when on the go or a quick place to check-in while traveling.

Finally, to commemorate our first year together as a group and in the spirit of helping small businesses, our friends at West + Peak have created our very own Candle, “Native Tobacco”. This hand-poured, 100% soy wax, phthalate free candle has a beautiful tobacco scent with notes of amber, clove, and spices. In addition to supporting a western inspired start-up company, 10% of all proceeds will go toward The Navajo Water Project, helping to drill wells for clean drinking water on the Navajo Nation. The purchase of this candle can be made here!

Thank you so much for being such a great group to work with and for inspiring each other daily. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I am truly humbled by all your creativity and willingness to contribute your timeless knowledge. Happy Anniversary!

Contemporary Spotlight: Liz Wallace


Liz: “Thank you for your patience, I finally woke up, LOL. I am so happy to be featured today! I was born in Sacramento and grew up in Auburn, about 30 miles north of Sac. I am Nisenan/Washo on my paternal side and Navajo on my maternal side. So about 3/4 Native. I am also descended from and named after Lizzie Enos, a well known basket artist who was one of the few of her family members to survive a smallpox clothing/blanket attack when she was a child. She was half Swedish from an affluent immigrant family named Johnson, but her father did not treat his Native family well so she eschewed White culture and embraced Nisenan ways. Several ethnologists have recorded her and she is in some early ethnology books. She had a book published about her called “Ooti” in 1969, I think.

Unfortunately for me, both my parents were highly abusive and I have few positive memories. We did live next door to my Grandma Nina, and she was the only adult who was kind and loving towards my brother Jeremy Wallace and myself. She also taught me to sew when I was 5 or so and gave me a box w/ her fabric scraps in it. Grandma loved to take us on long drives to the Japanese Tea Garden in SF, the mountains, to craft shows, etc. She is the main reason I am still alive, as I am sure I would have commited suicide or drank myself to death by now from CPTSD and depression. Both my parents also did silver jewelry and I have been coming to Indian Market since I was tiny – I recall waking up on a blanket on the asphalt looking at peoples feet shuffling around in front of our booth. While my parents did not teach us much directly, I loved to read Oscar Branson’s books on how to make Indian Jewelry, as well as his Turquoise book. As a teen I was able to sell beadwork in school for pocket money and some watercolors at my father’s booth at IM. But I never planned on becoming a jeweler.

When I was 17, I saw one of the most influential books in my life, “The Master Jewelers” by Kenneth Snow. It featured plique a jour enamel, along with other Art Nouveau and Art Deco jewelers. That was the first time I thought it might be cool to be a jeweler. After high school, I lived in Davis, CA for a year w/ my mother where I stagnated and moved to Santa Fe at 19 to work for an artist. That lasted a year as she had some MEGA personality issues, and through her I met a slimy, opportunistic, yet charismatic, 49 year old man who took me “under his wing”. He initially had me apprenticing rug restorers, but when I took my first formal silversmithing class at SFCC he decided to push me into jewelry and repair of jewelry instead. Ironically, when I saw the class titled Metalsmithing I thought it was welding and making tool-boxes. I was really surprised when it was jewelry, but it was familiar so I went along with it and made the same spider pin the rest of the class did. Because of my childhood I was very used to being dominated, controlled, and manipulated, so that slimy older antique dealer controlled my life, mind, and body for some years. My worst recurring nightmare is that he is still alive. I did LOTS of repair, setting of stones and Zuni inlay, being his step and fetch it/arm candy, selling of antiques, etc etc etc for years.

I did start doing my own designs which were ultra sleek and modern but did not sell, so I asked myself, “what can I do that will sell right away?”  Well, at antique shows some of the most sought after pieces that sold and resold before the public was let in were all turquoise Zuni butterflies, which I had the materials and the skill sets to create. So I did an all #8 big butterfly in secret and when I showed up to work at a show I pinned it to my dress. Jabba saw it and freaked out, “You didn’t make that! Your good, but not that good!” I just smirked. He snatched it off me, ran off, and sold it right away. I did get to keep all the money from that, even though he sold it without my permission and set the price. I had also been commissioned by Jay Evetts to set lots paired up stones into Classic style earrings, which is how I got into doing those. Butterflies, bracelets, and earrings helped me to not only survive but to emancipate myself from that slimy dealer who ended up self-destructing. I will always be grateful to butterflies for that, and plant lots of flowers that they love in my garden. They represent freedom and self determination to me. The rest of my story has been covered by Kim and Pat Messier quite adequately.”

DY: “Thank you for sharing your story, and your work. I have a few questions: I know as a designer, I am constantly looking for ways to make things “New”, and how to breathe new life into my creations. What do you think the future holds for your work? and is there any new specific type of jewelry process you are looking to try?”

LW: “Good question! I have dozens of designs that will keep me busy for years, most of which are Nature themed. Lots of chased Creature Cuffs, more plique a jour tiaras (I have done 3 so far), and a line of self defense jewels n hair ornaments.  I do want to make more CA basket themes pieces. I am planning a line inspired by Lizzie Enos baskets, but those will only be sold to other descendants of hers. But lots of oak and acorn items are on the way!”

DY: “i love the idea of Oak & Acorn!”

LW: “They were our staple starch, but were later eradicated by the Forest Service and agriculture.”

DY: “ there are videos on how to make acorn bread on Youtube, it’s a very lengthy process!”

LW: “LOL, tell me about it! My grandma liked to grind n leach it on her lawn.”

DY: “the soaking to get out the toxins was shocking to me – the fact that squirrels can digest it, and we can’t is a strange concept.”

LW: “Right???? But when they fall into rivers they get leached, and deer & other critters can eat them.”

DY: “What piece, or pieces have you sold that you wish you would have held onto? or do you let yourself get close to your jewelry?”

LW: “Hmmmm….. not many. I do get really intimate w/ the pieces while creating them, so when they are finished I am more concerned w/ selling rather than keeping them. I do still have my Water Goddess bellydance set, and keep it priced pretty high. Sooooo much work went into that!!!”

DY: “When I was in art school, I was given some good advice… Make up your mind on what you are going to keep, and what you want to sell – it gives your mind the ability to let it go, and not get to close/intimate with your art.”

LW: “Plus knowing they go to a good home where they will be appreciated helps let go.”

DY: “So another question, what do you do to get inspired? to flex your creative muscle? and do you have moments that you are just “not feeling it”?”

LW: “LOL, I have a constant stream of inspiration going at all times!!! Especially now that I have my own home w/ a garden I can really invest in. I also learned a great exercise from Miriam Sagan, a writing teacher from SFCC. It is called free writing and really gets the creativity flowing. If anything it is tough to decide on only a few designs n projects before each show. This last year I really had to narrow it down, as I usually ended up w a dozen half finished projects n 6 finished ones before the Heard n Indian Market. But w social media I can show what I am working on to hundreds of people, so it is OK.”

DY: “that is a good point, what has social media done for your business and craft? Is it a good thing? or is it a point of annoyance?”

LW: “It has been mostly an amazing tool. Before I had to quickly explain my involved processes face to face at shows, but now I can show progress pics in real time. I get lots of positive feedback & sell a lot of pieces before they are finished.”

DY: “I noticed a lot of your jewelry is focused around nature, bugs, snakes, sea-creatures. What is the connection?”

LW: “My phone decided to be squirrelly about Messenger so I cannot see what u just sent about a forum. Nature was an escape for me as a child. Home life was really nightmarish; I never knew when I would get raged at, hit w/ a belt etc. So being out in Nature & getting absorbed in bugs & sea life books was a life saver.”

DY: “Next to your work, whose work do you admire? any other current artists that you love?”

LW: “McKee Platero, Kathy Whitman, Robin Waynee, Leah Mata Fragua, Gomeo Zacharias Bobelu, Colin Coonsis, Jolene Eustace, Glenda Loretto, Shaax’ Saani, Char Holy Bear, and so many more. I am hoping to get an elk antler hair pick from Billyhawk Enos, too. I MUCH prefer hand made work to lost wax, machine made, n CAD pieces. Although I adored Stefani Courtois s work, even what she did in wax. And I am looking forward to what Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose does w CAD. Of course I am also inspired by Renee Lalique and Wallace Chan, a Chinese jeweler.”

DY: “Renee Lalique goes without saying, so amazing….. I could just stare at his work all day!”

LW: “I hope to make it to the Gulbenkian one day to drool in person.”

DY: “In your opinion, what role does an artist have in society? and how do you work to achieve it?”

LW: “Artist are the storytellers, interpreters, etc. Art can be the quickest way to communicate issues and history, too. My goal is to get people to see the beauty in oaks, insects, marine life, etc. in hopes that we will work harder to be responsible and compassionate stewards of Nature.”

DY: “ Liz Wallace agreed…. every culture communicates through food, music and art, it’s the common thread. Great job Liz.”

DY: “What Memorable responses have you had to your work? what keeps you going…. I’m so curious to ask questions while you are here tonight.”

LW: “My fave responses are big fat sales!!!! But one Heard show an older Native man in a Vietnam Vet hat parked in front of my table and read aaaall of my haiku/tanka earrings. He looked and smelled like an alcoholic, but seemed like nice guy overall. He then asked how much for a haiku pendant, which I did not have. He picked out a tanka poem about an ex-lover I had run into. The last lines were, “I forgot how beautiful I felt when you looked at me.” I could tell he really wanted it, so I told him I could twist the ear wire into a bail n gave him a good deal if he had cash. A Vietnam Vet price. He claimed it & ran off to get $$$. I had pliers w/ me & twisted it into a bail as best I could. When he came back he told me it was for his daughter. “I was not around when she was little, but now she has let me back in her life and I wanted to get her something.” That poem seemed to resonate with how it felt to be reunited w/ her. Another show, I had poetry earrings out about my adopted dad, Vanja Aljinovic. He was a Croatian film teacher that was the first healthy father figure I had ever had. He had passed away a year or so prior, and his widow & daughter visited me at my booth. Mina wanted to buy the daughter something, and she gravitated right to a pendant that ended w/ “I did not want to bother you. Now I wish I had.” When I told her it was about Vanja she broke down in tears. Those were probably my most touching sales.”

Liz Wallace

For more on this interview, and to read additional comments click HERE


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.