As I kept going farther back in time looking for answers, I kept getting a recurring image of a certain piece of jewelry. And the more I thought about that particular piece, the more it seemed right that it was the starting point.
Oh, not just the jewelry itself, but its origin. How I came to own it. The setting, history and background of what it represents and how those things have influenced every aspect of my pieces from style to color choice to bead selection.
So, let me take you back to the summer of 1972. I was seven years old and visiting my maternal grandparents in Santa Fe, New Mexico. These visits were a regular thing - usually 2 weeks in the summer and another 10-14 days at Christmas every year. My grandmother, Mimi (her real name was Ouida, but I couldn't say it so she became Mimi), loved to take us shopping (yes, my shopaholic tendencies were most definitely inherited).
On this particular day, she took us down to the center of town known as "The Plaza." One long side of this square-shaped area is The Palace of the Governors.
Originally constructed in the early 17th century as Spain's seat of government for what is today the American Southwest, the Palace of the Governors chronicles the history of Santa Fe, as well as New Mexico and the region. This adobe structure, now the state's history museum, is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States.
In modern times, the covered sidewalk in front of the Palace has become a traditional place for Native Americans to set out blankets displaying their handcrafted jewelry.
It's a bit hard to see, but if you look closely, you can make out people and chairs, etc., all along the length of the Palace.
My grandmother was a 4th grade teacher in Santa Fe for many, many years. It was not uncommon for us to be walking around town and be approached by people calling out "Mrs. Reiland! Mrs. Reiland! Remember me?" as she taught generations of Santa Fe kids who remembered her as grown ups. Because of her teaching background, she loved to tell us about the history of Santa Fe and the background of the local art forms such as silver jewelry.
She had her own collection of gorgeous, traditional jewelry including a sandcast silver bracelet and a traditional "squash blossom" necklace and earring set.
This is NOT my grandmother LOL! But, it is the best picture I could find of an example of a traditional-style squash blossom necklace. They generally have that upside down horseshoe-shaped pendant in the center and then the "flowers" up the sides. They can be all silver or set with turquoise or other stones.
I was always interested in Mimi's jewelry and loved to look at it, but I wasn't allowed to play with it (my grandmother was one smart cookie). But, one day, she decided I should get to pick out my own piece of jewelry - it might've been as a birthday present, but it's been so long, that I don't remember.
Anyway, off we went to the Palace of the Governors and Mimi patiently walked me down the sidewalk letting me look at all the jewelry for sale. Meanwhile, she taught me about silver - letting me feel how the higher quality pieces had a definite weight to them as compared to the lesser quality pieces. She showed me how the best of the hand-formed silver beads were highly polished with no or barely detectable seams. I learned a lot about the different forms and colors of turqoise and how it could range from an almost olive green to a deep sky blue. She even knew about the different types of "matrix" (the brown or black inclusions that can run through turquoise), how they affect the integrity or longevity of the stone and what impact they have on the monetary value of the stone vs. personal preference.
The best part about this experience is that it occurred before people began mucking about with turquoise by putting resin on it or doing various other treatments to it so I got to see a lot of the really high quality, genuine stone that just isn't around much any more.
And after all that, plus trying on a lot of different pieces and, with Mimi's help, bargaining price with various sellers, I finally wound up with my first real, official piece of jewelry:
Yes, it's a very small ring, but you have to remember, I was only seven years old at the time. Anything bigger would have either fallen off or gotten damaged. In fact, if you look closely at the sides of the ring, you can see that the silver band is a bit bent here and there. I wore this ring every day for years and years...even when I got big enough that it would only fit on my pinky finger
I was so influenced by that one piece of jewelry, that I made a point during my visits in later years (after I had a job and my own money to spend) to always seek out one special or unusual piece of jewelry each time. Over the years, I have created quite a collection so I thought I'd share a few more pieces with you:
I bought these earrings in the early 90's, but they were originally crafted sometime in the mid-1960's. They were "vintage" when I bought them and are now well on their way to becoming antiques. They remain one of my favorite pieces and I wear them all the time.
I belive the stone in this ring has been treated with resin (as has almost all turquoise on the market today), but it had a wonderful size and shape (I have kind of chunky fingers and am always looking to disguise that fact and this ring covers up about 1/3 of my ring finger). The detail on the silver work is pretty and I loved the colors in the stone. While I generally prefer less matrix, I liked the splashes of brown in this stone - made me think of the Earth as seen from space.
This bracelet is probably my all-time favorite piece. At the time I bought it, hardly anyone was doing traditional Native American sandcasting any more. It was dying out - probably due to the labor intensive process and silver prices rising. If you did find a piece, it was woefully light in weight due to the high cost of silver. This bracelet is not as heavy as my grandmother's traditional one, but it was light years away from a lot of the rest of the junk that was out there at the time. The stone has a beautifully graceful teadrop shape.
The sides are meant to look like corn plants.
I wear this bracelet when I feel the need to up my personal power factor. I call it my "Wonder Woman" bracelet. Okay, it might not stop bullets, but it has that kind of feeling to it.
Santa Fe style has definitely influenced my love of big, chunky bracelets. I have several that are all silver and others set with onyx or lapis. Other stones that are often seen in Santa Fe jewelry include coral (in shades from peach to deep red), oyster or shell (can be orange, peach or purple), and a more recent introduction: sugilite (deep purple).
Lastly, I was lucky enough to inherit these pieces after my grandmother passed away. I believe she bought the bracelet and earrings separately so they are not an exact match, but when worn, they are far enough away from each other that it doesn't really matter (I know, I know, I'm usually all about the matching, but with turquoise it doesn't seem to be such a big deal).
I think it's pretty obvious that my love of owning and wearing jewelry pre-dates any contact with beads or any notion I ever had of using beads or making my own jewelry. It's also pretty obvious where my preference for silver and for turquoise (both the stone and the color) come from. In the next installment, I'll explore a little bit more of my Santa Fe heritage and provide some examples of how this early exposure shows up in my bead selection and finished pieces.
Thanks for joining me on this early phase of my creative journey. If you've never been to Santa Fe, I encourage you to put it on your "must visit someday" list (you have one, right?) And if you do plan to go, e-mail me and I'll tell you the best stuff to do and most importantly, where to get the best enchiladas ;-)