During the late 1960's and early 1970's, Indian jewelry was incredibly popular. Turquoise and silver jewelry was being turned out by shops in Albuquerque, Gallup, Farmington, Flagstaff and other "border" towns in massive quantities.
Artists who worked on their own on the reservation were working full time. Anyone who needed employment on the reservation could turn to jewelry making. There was an economic upside in all of this, for sure, and it was also great to see these beautiful creations being worn by people all over the country.
The squash blossom necklace became an important symbol of Southwestern Indian jewelry. The downside was that prices rose beyond any reasonable level, it was not possible to maintain quality and too many really poorly made pieces of jewelry were sold. More turquoise jewelry was sold than there were Indians to make it, which opened up the market for unscrupulous non-Natives and even foreign makers.
It was during this time that I met Ben Nighthorse, a Northern Cheyenne who, along with a handful of Native American jewelers, had stepped out of the bounds of traditional jewelry making and were creating new and exciting designs. Ben did not have roots in the Southwest, so his jewelry was never based on that traditional look, but he did work with many Navajo, Hopi and Apache artists to establish what was really the first contemporary Native American Jewelry.
Ben was at a meeting of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, an organization that had formed in the 1970's to promote and protect authentic Indian arts and crafts. He was a fascinating guy to talk to and had many interests. He had been a policeman, was an avid horseman, an Olympian, a businessman and was making his primarily living as a jeweler. He, along with people like Gibson Nez, Jimmy King Jr., Charles Loloma, Preston Monongye and a dozen or so others were stepping out of traditional designs and creating new and exciting pieces.
I believe that if this group of people had not come along, any sustained interest in Native American jewelry would have dropped to the wayside. What they did was to raise the bar. It forced traditional style jewelers to up their quality and helped to create a new generation of jewelry artists that were excited about their art, not just the money that could be made from it.
In the late 1970's, Ben and his family bought a farm in Ignacio, 20 miles from Durango, and took over the management of the Southern Ute Sky Ute Downs. He did that for a few years, along with making his jewelry. In 1982 he got into politics, first as a State Representative and later as a United States Congressmen and Senator.
Ben showed his jewelry at Toh-Atin Gallery and his daughter, Shanan, worked for us for years before opening her own Sorrel Sky Gallery. While Ben was in the United States Senate, he created quite an uproar when he changed political parties. I was in Vail at the time and called home on a pay phone (no cell phones then!) to check on what was happening at the gallery. Carol Martin, our gallery manager, answered the phone and said, "Things are crazy here. I don't know what to do about Ben's jewelry!"
"What is wrong with Ben's jewelry?" I asked.
"He switched from a Democrat to a Republican and we are getting calls from people who want to return his jewelry," she said.
I had never considered that anyone would buy jewelry based on political affiliation, so after a moment to think about it, I told Carol,
"Tell them we are happy to trade their Nighthorse jewelry for anything else we have in the gallery, but we can't guarantee the political affiliation of the artist they trade for!"
There are a lot of stories about Ben, but the bottom line is that he made and was responsible for influencing great jewelry by many wonderful artists.
Occasionally, we receive some of his older pieces to resell and this week, we have an amazing bracelet that was originally sold by Ben at the Denver Museum of Natural History in the late 1970's.
Bear Claw Bracelet by Ben Nighthorse
It is an unusual shape, inlaid with turquoise, coral, jet, shell and Walrus ivory on sterling silver. It is not one of the pieces that he cast, as much of his jewelry is today, but is from the early days when every piece was handmade. It is a one of a kind piece of jewelry and a true collector's piece. It measures 6 3/4" around with 1 1/8" gap and the widest point measures 2" across.
We also have a ring from that same collection that has become one of his standard styles, but the signature on this piece, as it is on the bracelet, is hand engraved. By the 80's, Ben had begun using a stamp rather than signing each piece by hand. The ring is size 9 3/4 and is inlaid with coral, shell and turquoise.
Princess Red Coral Ring by Ben Nighthorse
We have one other piece which is a horse pendent, inlaid with turquoise, that came from a different collection. It is a more recent example of Nighthorse jewelry. Note that he used a stamp to sign it. It is a beautiful pendent, 1 3/4" wide with a 15 " silver chain.
Running Horse Pendant by Ben Nighthorse
When Ben retired from Congress, he donated his papers and office to the Center for Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College and they have recently opened a new exhibit featuring a re-creation of his office with a display of his jewelry. We encourage you to visit the Center to see the display and also to see the new exhibit of pieces from the Durango Collection, the Navajo weaving collection put together by my father and Mark Winter.
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