In May of 2014, right after the Iron Horse Bicycle Race in Durango,  I was in the Gallery when Tommy Singer walked in wearing his motorcycle leathers. I had known Tommy for over thirty years and had sold his jewelry since the 1970s.

He didn't look so good.

"Tommy, are you still riding that Harley?" I asked.

He smiled and said he was. I asked him if he felt alright, and he said he was tired from the ride. He had brought up a few strands of beads that had become his new style. He would buy beads made of different stones and mix them with his handmade silver beads that he sometimes overlaid with gold.


Technically, they were not all Native American handmade, but they were something unique to Tommy and his wife, Rosita. The craftsmanship on the individual beads was beautiful.

Years ago, back in the 1960s, Tommy was credited with creating the first Native "chip inlay" jewelry. He would overlay one sheet of silver with cut-out designs and then inlay that with turquoise, coral, jet, and shell chips. If you've spent much time around a Native jewelry shop, you will recall a lot of waste material that is too small to use in regular jewelry. What he did was to realize that you could take this material, mix it with clear epoxy, and use it to inlay the designs you had cut out.

His work was a hit, and many other artists tried their hand at it. Of course, it wasn't a new technique, as jewelers from Mexico, the Middle East, and the Far East had made similar pieces for years. But Tommy's work was finer, the stone pieces were smaller, and the stamping he accompanied it with was sharp and unique.


The interest in chip inlay was high for several years but slowly faded, and today, you see little of this type of inlay work. Tommy went on to create traditional Navajo jewelry and overlay work. He also began using gold to overlay the silver base of his designs.

By the time Tommy stopped at the gallery that day, most of his jewelry was made with beads and, occasionally, a pendant that went with them. They were attractive, easy for women to wear in any setting, and not anywhere as expensive as his traditional jewelry. They also had a distinct look that said, "Tommy Singer."


Not long after he was at the gallery, Singer died after suffering a heart attack while riding his motorcycle. It was a shock as everyone in the Indian jewelry world, whether they knew him personally or not, knew who Tommy Singer was and how important he was to developing the art form. During the late '60s and early '70s, he helped to fuel the boom in Indian jewelry, and after that time passed, his quality stood out and was always recognizable.

Few Native jewelers are as well known as this Navajo silversmith.