ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The 2,000-year history of jewelry in New Mexico incorporates everything from bottle caps to diamonds.
Some of the most important American designers and makers of contemporary jewelry live and work here.
But they remain unknown locally.
Opening on Saturday, June 2, the Albuquerque Museum’s “American Jewelry from New Mexico” exhibition tells these cross-cultural stories of tradition and innovation reaching well beyond the state’s mythological tri-cultural stereotype.
The cross currents of blended styles ripple throughout the exhibit.
“This idea of New Mexico being a hub of jewelry making is a fact for at least 2,000 years,” curator Andrew Connors said. “We decided to focus on stories that pushed the most buttons in terms of innovation.
“As far as I know, every culture uses ornamentation.”
A stone effigy pendant of mating dragonflies with folded wings practically screams contemporary in its clean precision. An artist carved it 2,000 years ago at Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Alto. A tiny hole likely drilled using a grain of sand with a cactus needle allows it to hang from a necklace.
“They didn’t use silver until the 1870s,” Connors said.
A tab basketmaker necklace discovered in a Four Corners dry cave combines turquoise with abalone shell traded from the Pacific. Its cordage is twined yucca.
Hundreds of years later, the Doors’ Jim Morrison wore a Cochiti Pueblo concha belt on stage, popularizing the style around the globe.
“But we couldn’t bring the concha belt that Morrison was buried in,” Connors said.
“Millicent Rogers did the exact same thing in the 1940s,” he continued. “She wore armfuls of Navajo jewelry on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine.”
The exhibit features “The Lone Ranger’s” Jay Silverheels’ (he played Tonto) massive concha belt, complete with inlaid Apache Gaan (“crown”) dancers.
Contemporary Apache artist Bob Haozous drew on the concha tradition to make a wry comment on the commercialization of Native American jewelry. “Squeak” features a mouse buckle that draws more on the cartoon work of R. Crumb than Walt Disney. The conchas resemble tiny mousetraps; turquoise nuggets replace the cheese.
The Mexican silver and gold filigree of the 1870s and ’80s may be the least understood form of jewelry made in New Mexico, Connors said. At first, catalogs and fliers trumpeted the word “Mexican” because it was considered the best silver. Then the word became pejorative.
“When you go back in style, it’s really Spanish style,” Connors said. “If you go back before that, it’s north African. If you go back far enough, it’s ancient Greek.”
Other pieces lean more toward the outrageous.
Santa Fe artist Debra Baxter created a set of silver and crystal brass knuckles from quartz and silver-plated bronze. The internationally known artist recently completed a show at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery.
“It’s much more of a conceptual piece,” Connors said. “It’s about power and authority and the idea of protecting yourself.”
Paula Crevoshay fabricated a lady’s slipper brooch using 18-karat gold with tsavorite garnet, pink spinel, ruby, opal and a natural abalone pearl. The internationally renowned artist lives in the East Mountains.
“She had a one-woman show in Paris,” Connors said.
Taos’ Harold O’Connor created a “Timeless” watch sans hands but with tiny workers circling a conference table with coffee cups and papers in 18-karat gold.
Pat Pruitt’s stainless steel collar with its stabbing feather points looks as thought it could scare small children. Pruitt is of Laguna Pueblo, Chiricahua Apache and Anglo descent.
“They all go away from you, so you don’t get impaled on it,” Connors said. “It has meticulous fabrication.”
Shane Hendren’s 2018 “Water is Life/Women’s Necklace” features Indian head nickels reconfigured into women’s faces in the style of a Navajo squash blossom necklace. It’s both vaquero and Navajo. In the late 1860s and ’70s, the same iron stamps used in Mexican leather working traditions were used by Navajo artists in silver.
“My hope is that people will spend time and come back,” Connors said. “There are a lot of artists who’ve never been shown here.”