It is still early morning when the Indians center on the Plaza and gather outside the centuries-old Palace of the Governors. They come daily to Santa Fe, N.M., from the surrounding pueblos, carrying their silver and turquoise jewelry.
Under the wood-beamed portal of the Palace, shaded from the bright sun, they spread their colorful blankets and arrange necklaces, bracelets, rings, hair ornaments, buckles and trinkets into neat and shining displays.
The Palace of Governors was the first structure built in Santa Fe after the city's founding. It served as a capitol until the 1860s. Gov. Lew Wallace of New Mexico wrote most of "Ben Hur" inside its thick adobe walls. In 1913 it became the main building of the Museum of New Mexico, which houses historical artifacts and documents, and a fine collection of Indian crafts.
Before buying Indian jewelry, a museum visit is advised. You'll see the best jewelry and be able to set your own standards accordingly. The museum shop is stocked with a fine selection of Navajo and Pueblo Indian jewelry, including collectible pieces of Navajo craftsman Jimmie Harrison (inlay bracelets cost $750 and up) and other outstanding artists.
The shop is staffed with volunteers who love their work and are generous with their information.
Evolved in the 1850s
Indians have been making jewelry with turquoise, shell and other stones for centuries. But the type of jewelry we know as "Indian" evolved in the 1850s and flourished in the 1870s. Navajo craftsmen used coins they got from traders to make jewelry.
In 1884 "Don Lorenzo" Hubbell, owner of the Hubbell Trading Post, hired two silversmiths to teach their craft to the Navajo. Soon afterward the Indians began to set turquoise into the silver. Navajo craftsmen emphasize the metal work, creating decorative patterns and motifs in silver to enhance the stones.
The Zuni learned silversmithing from the Navajo in the 1870s. And they are known for "needlework" and "cluster" techniques, in which small, similarly cut stones are set into precise and delicate geometric patterns.
The Zuni taught silversmithing to the Hopi, who developed the overlay technique. Many of the designs have symbolic meaning. A thunderbird, for example, means sacred bearer or happiness unlimited, and a cactus flower means courtship.
The Santo Domingo people work almost exclusively with stone and shell, and have developed the art of grinding turquoise into tiny beads, known as heishi (pronounced he-she) which are strung. Several strands are used to make a necklace, often with nuggets of coral mixed in with the heishi.
Borrowed, Wedded, Blended
Over the years, these styles have been borrowed, wedded, blended, but basic types are still identifiable.
The Southwest has 35 turquoise mines. Turquoise (known technically as cuprous aluminum phosphate) varies from light blue to deep blue-green. Color and hardness depend upon the nature of the copper compounds in the mineral.
Fine turquoise is hard and takes a high polish. Lesser-grade turquoise is soft and porous. Much of it is stabilized by the addition of plastic resin. Stabilized turquoise, sometimes used for heishi, is of much less value in jewelry that emphasizes set stones. Always ask whether a stone you're thinking of buying is natural or stabilized, and judge pricing accordingly.
Two other museum shops offer quality jewelry. The Museum of International Folk Art (706 Camino Lejo, phone (505) 827-8350) has crafts from around the world in its shop, along with a fine selection of Navajo and Pueblo Indian pieces, including more elaborate collector's pieces and simple souvenirs.
Next door, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (704 Camino Lejo, phone (505) 982-4636 has a wonderful shop offering trade bead and fetish necklaces by Robert Kamatobe and inlay bracelets by Jimmie Harrison, as well as old and new silver belts.
Of the dozens of shops and trading posts in Santa Fe, several have good reputations for fair dealing. On the Plaza (corner of San Francisco and Washington streets), Packard's Indian Trading Gallery, (505) 983-9241, is a member of the Indian Arts & Crafts Assn. (IACA), which sets high standards of knowledge and fair trading.
Packard's has wonderful silver necklaces, ranging from multiple strands of delicate silver tubular beading known as liquid silver, to mixtures of round and oval beads, or fluted, spherical or elliptical beads of silver (prices range from about $75 to $850).
There are rings with huge chunks of turquoise, with the source of the stone identified. A Lone Mountain Mine stone, set in a sunburst of silver, cost about $450. Indian Mountain turquoise in a simpler setting is about $170.
A Worthwhile Visit
Next door on Washington Street, Kiva is another well-reputed dealer. A visit is worthwhile for comparison of styles and prices.