Storyteller jewelry by Navajo silversmiths have been popular for about 50 years. Not a lot of artists make this style, as it requires a special artistic talent and a lot of time.
Silver figures of people, hogans, horses, clouds, sheep and even an occasional outhouse are individually cut out of sheet silver and then soldered onto a second sheet that is sometimes stamped with other designs and sometimes not. Some pieces are simple, and some are elaborate.
A few artists combine the storyteller motif with contemporary designs on the opposite side of the jewelry.
One silversmith that creates special bracelets with this method is Cody Hunter. He has been making jewelry for over 20 years and lives near the mouth of Canyon de Chelly. On the outside of his “Inner Beauty” bracelets, he creates an uneven texture in silver, reminiscent of the sandstone cliffs of Navajo Land. He then places small, 14 K gold designs, hand cut to look like petroglyphs, on that surface.
But inside, where it can’t be seen, he creates elaborate scenes of a traditional Navajo homestead or sometimes running horses among the sandstone buttes. There is usually a gold sun set in the scene on the inside of the bracelet. They are strikingly beautiful, and no one knows what is inside except the wearer!
We have three of these “Inner Beauty” bracelets with very similar outsides and very different insides. Being solid silver, they can be adjusted slightly to fit the wrist.
We also have a more traditional silver Storyteller bracelet by Cody that he did in collaboration with Lorenzo Lee. It features incredibly detailed stamp work in a scene with a group of Navajo women and children in a summer shade hogan with a baby in a cradleboard leaning against a post. There are corn plants, a horse, a sheep, clouds and red rock cliffs surrounding the scene.
And, of course, the gold sun in the sky!
And, we have a very special simple Storyteller bracelet with a Navajo woman and her dog herding a goat and two sheep on a plain silver background. This piece was made by a man that many consider the person who took Storyteller jewelry to a new level, Clarence Lee. Storyteller Bracelet by Clarence Lee
I met Clarence the first time in 1974 at San Geronimo Days at the Taos Pueblo. Many Pueblo Ceremonial and Feast Days fall on Catholic Saint Days. The reason for this was that during the early Spanish conquest of the Southwest, the Native people were being converted to Catholicism. The Pueblo people scheduled their traditional dances and ceremonies to coincide with these days, which resulted in the Spanish believing that the celebrations were honoring the Christian tradition. The two religions are often intermingled. That’s another story!
I had gone to Taos to do a rug show at Carl Schloser’s Trading Post on Kit Carson Road. Carl was a well-known German lithographer who married Mary, a Taos woman, and raised a family there. While I was there, Charles Eagle Plume, and old friend of Carl’s who was a highly respected trading post owner from Allen’s Park, Colorado, showed up in a big red Buick convertible. He had Multiple Sclerosis and walked with a shuffle and a cane.
He pulled up to Carl’s place and waved me out to his red Buick convertible. The top was down.
“Come with me,” he said. “I need some help.”
When I was six years old, Charles Eagle Plume was been the first Indian I remember meeting. I am sure I had met others who worked with my Dad, but this was different. He used to do speeches around the country and was in Durango giving a talk to the Rotary Club where my father was a member. After the talk, Dad brought him home for a visit. They were good friends and had done business for years.
I was asleep when they got to the house and Dad woke me up saying, “Someone is here I want you to meet.”
I got out of bed and sleepily walked into the front room. When I turned the corner, Charles Eagle Plume was standing there with a full beaded outfit and an Eagle Feather head dress. Scared me to death! He looked ferocious!
Anyway, I got in the car with him and he told me he had frozen buffalo meat in the trunk of the car. It had a big trunk and it was full. We drove back out near the Taos Pueblo and put the Buffalo in a frozen food locker that Charles knew about.
Then he said, “Let’s go to the Pueblo. They are setting up booths and I want to see this silversmith that makes 'very unusual' work." We parked outside the Pueblo and he shuffled across the plaza until he found Clarence Lee.
Clarence was the first storyteller artist I can remember. He made silver boxes, cups, bowls and all kinds of jewelry with elaborate stories on them. I remember that Charles whipped out his checkbook and bought the silver box for a price that stunned me! Clarence was a large guy with an easy, friendly smile.
Unfortunately, he died at 59 in 2011. This simple bracelet is the first piece of his jewelry I have ever had to sell. He sold most of his work to a couple of traders and the rest to collectors. But I’ll always remember Charles buying the silver box from him.
The next day we went back to the locker plant and got the Buffalo. Carl had a big hole dug in front of the house and hot coals were put inside with the meat and it cooked for all day. That night, hundreds of people showed up for the feast, including Clarence and his wife.
It was a great experience.