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DESIGNER SPOTLIGHT : For Ray Tracey, Creating Jewelry Is a Future With a Sense of Past

October 26, 1995

Playing golf has proved profitable for jewelry designer Ray Tracey, who creates intricate rings, bracelets and watchbands out of colorful stones wrapped in gold or silver. As any duffer knows, the hands are where everything begins.

"I golf in a lot of tournaments," says Tracey: "I meet people on the golf course, and, for the most part, everyone is concentrating on your hands as you're holding the club. I wear a lapis and opal ring surrounded by diamonds, and it's eye-catching. Someone will say, 'That's a pretty ring,' and I say, 'I made it.' "

Tracey, 42, was at Zia Jewelry in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday to introduce his latest collection of earrings, double-sided pendants and necklaces and to greet a few hundred people who lined up to meet him. Some asked him to autograph his jewelry--using an electric pencil--while others brought him small gifts. One person even gave him a cake.

It was his first Southern California appearance in nine years, since he packed up his family and moved from Hollywood, where he had been an actor in a few films and television series. Tracey, a Navajo, set up a design studio in Gallup, N.M., where he creates asymmetrical jewelry that subtly reflects traditional Native American motifs.

He spends a month designing the shape for a line of pieces. The shape is outlined in sterling silver or 14- or 18-karat gold. He then inlays natural stones and shells--such as spiny oyster shell, purple sugilite and green variscite--to complete a mosaic. Occasionally he embellishes with opals and diamonds.

Tracey said he works so closely with the grinding wheel that his fingerprints have been rubbed away.

His jewelry is often complex. He's used as many as 75 pieces of stone for two inches of mosaic, but he tries to limit the colors to three because of the finite canvas.

"The area I work with is very small, so if you try to jam it full of every color in the rainbow, it won't look as nice as if you just use a few colors but work with the different hues of those colors," he says.

"In one piece, I use red coral, which has many hues--reddish orange, deep oxblood red and light red. Sugilite is a purple that ranges from light lavender to almost a black."

His work is shown in more than 300 galleries nationwide, with the collection selling from $20 to $3,500. Most of the silver pieces are under $300, and gold pieces sell from $300 to $1,000.

The movie-star treatment he receives from some of his fans never gets to Tracey, who readily admits that his creations occasionally miss the mark. He designs hundreds of styles in a year, some of which are not accepted by the public because they are too futuristic or are "just dogs," he says, with a laugh. "Sometimes I get a few years ahead of my time, so I'll put it aside and just hope peoples' taste change and it will find its right time and audience. But others never will," he says.

On a recent trip around the world, he was applauded by the Japanese for his contemporary interpretations but received a cold shoulder from Germans who prefer the traditional, symmetrical Native American approach.

"The people who like my work do so because it's designer jewelry with a modern style that has a little bit of Indian but not too much," he says. "Not everyone wants Indian jewelry, but they will wear contemporary pieces with a Southwest flare."

Tracey, who was raised on a Navajo reservation in Ganado, Ariz., says his designs are inspired by stories, mythology and motifs that have been passed down through Native American culture.

In that culture, the eagle is seen as the ultimate protection because it can fly high enough to touch God and carry his power back to Earth. Tracey designed a pendant with a shield made of pink and red coral and turquoise, weighted at the bottom with seven sterling silver eagle feathers ($1,500).

Another pendant evokes the symbol of Yei-Bei-Chei, a personage medicine men drew in the sand or painted to bring on healing properties. Tracey's rendition is of opals and pink coral set in 14-karat gold ($1,500).

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The bear, another ancient symbol, also gets the Tracey treatment. His is a barely recognizable bear, outlined in sterling silver and inlaid with pink and red coral, turquoise and lapis ($2,500).

"Ray is a very independent and new thinker in Native American jewelry," says Ron Cohan, owner of Zia Jewelry. "He's not influenced by the marketplace or what's been done before. He keeps the old colors and the traditional motifs, like the healing bear and eagle feathers, but then he goes in his own direction."

Tracey thinks some of his customers buy his jewelry because of a particular stone he used, not because of the shape or the stories that inspired them.

"Some metaphysical people believe there are certain healing properties in stones, particularly lapis and crystal," he said. "Some shy away from opals, because in Medieval times, royalty abhorred opals because they thought they were bad luck. I don't have a problem with opals. I love the flash and color."

He's been making jewelry since he was 9, when his mother signed him up for a craft class during one summer when he was bored. There was a silversmith bench in the classroom, and Tracey said he went home that night and told his father he was going to design jewelry for a living. Tracey, who studied engineering at the University of Utah, became a professional jeweler in 1977.

"I really enjoy what I do. I sound like an Army recruitment poster, but to me, it's not just a job, it's an adventure," says the designer, who spends every day in jeans and cowboy boots. "I travel, meet people and experience a lot of the world. I don't even call it work."

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