Forged in an alchemy of shortage and tourism, thunderbird jewelry provided food to Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo families during the Depression.
Precious stones were rare and resourcefulness ruled. So artists turned to garbage-picking old phonograph records and battery casings to create mosaic jewelry to sell to the tourist trade.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is showcasing a rare 70-piece collection of that ingenuity in adornment until July 11. The exhibition features necklaces, pendants and earrings donated to the center by Kewa tribal member and jewelry artist Martine Lovato. His wife Rita Levine Lovato collected the jewelry throughout their relationship. Variations include mosaic tab necklaces and free-form contemporary jigsaw inlay, as well as various birds.
“There’s one piece that looks almost like a hummingbird,” exhibitions curator Deborah Jojola said.
Most of the jewelry dates from the early 1920s to the 1940s, she added.
According to myth, the thunderbird is an enormous creature that produces thunder, lightning and rain. Originating in the Pacific Northwest, its image somehow migrated south, catching support from the tourist trade and Kewa jewelry artists.
“Of course, birds are the spiritual carriers of prayers,” Jojola said. But the Pueblo people “never gave us an exact meaning of the thunderbird.”
Kewa artists had been known for their exquisite use of turquoise, shell and jet for centuries. But by the 1920s, these traditional materials had grown scarce. Spurred by economic need, jewelers turned to a new medium: abandoned automobile battery casings and record albums. They were a quick substitute for traditional jet.
Children often collected found objects such as rubber from tire tubes, plastic from discarded toothbrushes, battery casings and broken 78 rpm records.
At the time, batteries came in a rainbow of colors, including red, blue and yellow. Families harvested the inky substance from scrapyards. By the 1930s, the artists had developed a unique style of folk-art jewelry made from recycled and found materials.
As the economy improved, they added more refined materials such as turquoise, coral and spiny oyster, as well as mother-of-coral, jet and pipestone. Adhesives progressed from pine sap to cement.
The jewelers gathered turquoise from the Cerrillos Mines.
“There’s a pathway from Santo Domingo that cuts across I-25 that leads directly to Cerrillos,” Jojola said.
Whole families set up production lines with designated tasks, such as stone cutting, gluing, drilling, shaping, grinding and beading. Jewelry-making also helped parents teach core values such as respect, responsibility and traditional culture. Families sometimes shared materials with one another.
“They even used cotton thread,” Jojola added, ” – maybe there was a spinner of the fiber.”
At the time, this jewelry sold for 50 cents to $4. Today they are collector’s items.
The tradition has been revived and continues today, Jojola said.
“It’s grandparents handing it down to their children.”