Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Put the Focus on the Details

When considering the time involved in the creation of Native American Artisan Jewelry there are indications on vintage pieces, as well as pieces done by certain contemporary artisans, that time was of no consequence. This is most evident on pieces that were created by a Native American FOR a Native American.

Although Navajo sterling overlay is available, yet not very common, some early pieces really stand out in the sweat equity department. This vintage cuff bracelet by unknown artisan “Bluehorse” bears scrutiny. If you'll notice the top and bottom bands are a single, hand cut piece of sterling, but each of the triangle elements in the center two rows were individually placed; each is slightly different, the pattern doesn't match up exactly as Bluehorse didn't use a “jig” to create the floating triangles—each was cut by hand, eye-balling the shapes as they were cut. The bottom band with the triangle elements varies considerably as well. This sort of eye-to-hand coordination, barring the use of measurement tools, give these time intensive pieces character that is missing in many cases.

This set of Old Pawn Navajo sterling dangle earrings is one of the best examples of Native American craftsmanship currently in the collection. When I acquired them it was obvious they are completely hand made, from the ear wires to the sterling beads. What I didn't notice until I examined them closely, is that each of the wires that connect the elements is encased in a tiny sterling cylinder. How this was accomplished I can't venture a guess, but the detail on this small a scale is a testament to the unknown Navajo Artisan's dedication to creating a work of art with little to no consideration for the time required. The artistic content of the finished piece, even though the naked eye won't be privy to it, is all that was on the artisan's mind. The mind boggles at how those minuscule cylinders were created.

I avoided Zuni Chip inlay work for many years, as I had seen some pieces that were obviously thrown together; the stone chips have to be given considerable attention as per size and shape, as when chip inlay, or as it's sometimes called “tweezer inlay,” is created, it's like making a jig-saw puzzle with nothing to refer to as you place the chips into the recesses. A light came on a few years ago when I started seeing some chip inlay that had obviously been done with great care, again with little regard for the time involved. This buckle, featuring a Native American Thunderbird is a fantastic example of chip inlay and attention to design. The recesses on the wings come to a needle-thin point and the artisan managed to find the correct puzzle pieces to fill them, which was no small feat considering the size and shape of chips he had to locate, or in this case they may have been created for the task. Nevertheless, the tightness of the coral, turquoise and Mother of Pearl chips is impressive.

The Reeves family of the Navajo Nation, Gary, David and “Sunshine” are to be labeled as contemporary artisans as they are still producing fine Native American jewelry and have been doing so for decades. Something sets them apart though. They are old-school artisans that work mostly in sterling, using few stones while dedicating themselves to producing time-intensive work. This has served them well as their pieces are collectable and exquisitely crafted. This sterling Navajo belt buckle by Gary Reeves is a prime example of putting the outcome of your efforts in the forefront and ignoring the time required to achieve your goal. The sterling work on this buckle is all done with a hammer and a chisel, the coiled wire accent was hand-twisted and the use of stamping is limited to the single peyote button in the center of the buckle. It doesn't stop there—the tongue and belt attachment bar are also artfully crafted and done using Old Pawn techniques.

At Native Treasures we carry a full line of Native American jewelry, with the focus being on vintage artisan works of high quality. When acquiring pieces for the website the details are all important and warrant considerable investment when the piece shows the undeniable signs of dedication, talent and a desire to reach the design goal. When an artisan pursues their vision with such tenacity, the results are often astounding. This Unique American Art Form will live on as a testament to a people that have survived adversity and continue to express their connection to the Earth through their art.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Antiques from the Southwest

After 10 years of developing a supply chain, I'm finding that hitting the lottery would be required in order for me to acquire the voluminous number of amazing pieces offered to me. I'm a bit obsessed when it comes to bringing home the bacon, yet there is so much STUFF I just can't get it all. I have to let things go all the time, and it's often heartbreaking. I save my funds to invest in high-end, handcrafted Native American artisan works like this early 1900s Navajo turquoise and sterling necklace, and although my suppliers are a talented bunch, they offer me low-end gear a lot of the time--nice stuff, but not nice enough.

I love my suppliers, but my best work is done solo. I've diversified over the years and have gotten to the point that when I find anything of considerable value like this Navajo Yei rug, I can't help but acquire it.

This thing was offered to me by my favorite operative. I'm picking it up today for an extended photo shoot. It's an iron mirror frame that once hung in a brothel in the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico in the late 1800s. Every thing is handcrafted right down to the rivets. 4 feet tall and 30 pounds.

When I find stuff of this caliber it often presents a problem: Keep it or sell it? This would look pretty awesome in my living room.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The art of the Native American Indian

There's a lot to be said for Native American jewelry artisans that were in on it early. The last 100 to 150 years have proven to be an amazing period of creative growth within their culture, and the pioneers that set the stage, developed many of the design elements that are still in use today.

That's the thing though; a lot of contemporary jewelry on the market is being produced inexpensively and in a big hurry because for some reason, demand is pretty high. Many artisans have been absorbed into the mass production aspect of the craft, which in my humble opinion, has devalued the art form.

Designs and techniques that were once an artisans calling card, are now being snagged and used in a completely different way. There was a time Native American Indians saw no need to sign their work--their designs spoke their name to the fellow tribe members the pieces were created for. But global demand has placed such pressure on the industry, and spawned so many "companies" that create knock-offs, entities like eBay will no longer allow you to offer unsigned Native American jewelry in the Native American category. It has to go into a category called "Unsigned Artisan Jewelry" and of course, if you should list an unsigned masterpiece in that category, it goes unnoticed for the most part. This edict was handed down by the Native American community itself, due to all the knock-offs flooding the market.

Don't get me wrong--there is still a sizable community of artisans doing superior work, innovative designers like Kirk Smith, Charles Loloma and Victor Beck, to name a few, that have taken established techniques and are pushing the envelope. I like a lot of their work and have been know to acquire it from time to time.

I have to say though, that my heart really belongs to the pioneers. The artisans that were creating with minimal tools and resources, drawing on European design elements and making them their own by incorporating the cultural and religious aspects of their people as is evident in this Hopi overlay buckle by renowned artisan Michael Kabotie. This is when the guidelines for Native American jewelry were laid down, and a lot of what is being produced currently is a repetition of what has been done before, the big difference being, that the handcrafted aspect is being removed a little at a time.

My main focus for the website is to carry older pieces, the originals as it were. So when I came across this early 1900s Navajo necklace I had no choice but to acquire it. It's background is a common story, and kind of sadly so. It was traded for liquor at a Gallup, New Mexico bar sometime in the mid 20th century; 1950--1960, somewhere around there. The necklace itself was produced much earlier and has been dated by associates as being from between 1900 and 1930. This was a family heirloom, and was traded for a hangover.

I've heard one-too-many stories like this and I've often wondered what I could do to instigate positive change. I looked into several options and have chosen the American Indian College Fund as the organization to support. My partners in Native Treasures left this decision to me and assisting young people sounds like a pretty good idea. We're still a young company, barely been on the books for a few months now. The website is still in it's infancy and generating funds beyond what is required to keep the business afloat, won't start to happen for another six months or so, when our search engines start to do their job and start driving Google searches to the site. I've contacted AICF and have shared my intentions with them. I expect to be able to start regular support for this system in the next six months.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Every Once In A While

I'm a big integrity fan. I try and associate with people that embrace this attribute. I happened to find one that has exceeded all expectation.

There were problems with the initial website, and rebuilding it from the ground up was the only solution. Important, long-time clients couldn't make heads or tails out of it. One of these clients, being my greatest supporter for many years (see The Pupil Speaks blog).

This client suggested someone that might be able to pull my ass out of the fire, and I'll be damned if she didn't pull it off with great aplomb. The re-coding of the site was one thing, and when it was completed, and the site migrated to a new host for security purposes, I figured I would be left to deal with it, as I had been before. I was wrong.

It's been a few weeks now that she and I have been tweaking the site, and her attention to detail, professionalism and dedication around making sure the site is set up to operate at maximum efficiency, continues to be a source of amazement for me. She developed custom plugins that perform tasks automatically, that previously would have taken several days to implement. She has given me volumes of information concerning search engine optimization. She developed a monitoring system for the site, where I can see extremely detailed information about the site's performance. And here's the clincher: She made three personalized videos showing me exactly how to manage the site—these things weren't laying around to be tossed at all her clients, are by no means generic in nature—she made them specifically for Native Treasures. Impressive.

SunFire Creations is responsible for what you see on the site now. It's clean, easily navigable, fun to cruise around in and highly functional in all respects. I couldn't be happier with what she has done.

The thing is, she simply will not stop making improvements. She was paid a paltry sum long ago, sticking to her initial quote, even after it became apparent that re-coding the site was going to be 10 times more work than she anticipated. She invariably contacts me a couple of times a day and informs me of something new she has developed for the site. She's personable, friendly and easy to talk to even when my ignorance of HTML and SEO attributes are the subject--she's never made me feel uncomfortable when asking questions. I've grown very fond of her.

Hold on; email just arrived from her. I'll get back to you...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Trial by Fire

The new site will be up in a few hours, prolly before you read this, but I gotta tell ya, the last two months of trying to pull this together has been a little bumpy. That the site is up at all is a frickin' miracle.

I made an uninformed decision. And it cost me. This is not real easy to admit, as is often the case when you shoot yourself in the foot. Hindsight being 20/20 is so annoying at times! I had the resources at hand, but my enthusiasm to get the collection in front of people blurred my vision. OCD, ADHD, call it what you will, I lost focus. There was so much going on around building the collection, I had this thought: “Webmasters have been around for decades. Grab one! They are bound to know what they're doing in this day and age, no matter who you tap!” I was given a suggestion, tossed my fate to the wind, and handed my internet personna to someone that simply didn't have a single clue about how to manage their business, considering reality as an index. Basic stuff, right? Integrity, honesty, hard work, blah, blah, blah.... It didn't work out. The Drake Intelligence Group took me for a ride and I took it in the shorts. My bad.

I've known Marc Mintz, the 'Big Cheese' at the MacXperts for over 20 years. He has never once led me to believe he is anything less than an honest person. Nobody, and I mean nobody, touches any of my 4 Macintosh computers but him. I'm thinking it might have been a good idea to consult him prior to embarking on having a website made for me. Ya think? His finger is not in touch with computing, his entire being is ensconced in the digital world. I kinda blew that call, right off the bat, by not contacting him.

A 35+ year friend has invested in this venture. He has acquired several nice pieces from me over the years and has a great deal of faith in my ability to procure high-end merch. He came in with me around the whole website idea and we built the current collection. Pretty respectable if I say so myself; a few museum pieces—nice stuff.

So, I blew the call on getting the website done, some of which my good friend is financially involved in, and it got to the point that I called upon him to protect his investment, by assuming communication responsibilities with the Drakes. Life, being a crap-shoot at best, had landed me with certified sociopaths as webmasters, and my delicate nature and tendency toward honesty was not in line with their agenda. My investor, whom I often refer to as 'Mohandus', was unable to establish meaningful dialogue with them, and like I said previous, “...it cost me.” Boy, did it cost me.

There was a felony committed--computer tampering. Not even kidding. Homeland Security has jurisdiction in that area and I'm not real sure it's a good idea to fuck around with those guys. Doughnuts are a great distraction when facing your inability to embrace integrity. But there's a little insight into what a mess I made concerning acquiring a webmaster. I'm astonished at my decision making process, and am finding it hard to accept that I chose to believe in basic human nature, when all around me have abandoned it, in favor of associating with “can do” people, who have repeatedly proven themselves as trustworthy.

Something amazing happened though. My favorite collector gave my name to an actual professional webmaster of considerable talent and impecable integrity. She sternly took the reigns of the Native Treasures internet presence, and like magic, the website was transformed into a viable, easy to navigate, accessible, and intelligently designed venue for my art collection.

I perform considerable research on all the items represented on the Native Treasures website; take my investigation of their time period and origins, as far as humanly possible. Agreed, my reading list is daunting, but I'm no novice. I just forgot to apply that regimin to a pretty important aspect of doing business.

Oops! Too many balls in the air.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Early 1900s Navajo Turquoise Ring

When you wear a ring you seldom notice it. It becomes part of your hand after a while, and after 3 years you only hold it up for inspection when someone comments on it, and even then you're not looking at it—you're showing it to them.

A Frisbee got hooked on my ring the other day causing a tiny skin break where the shank meets my finger. The ring was irritating the injury so I took it off. I wanted to let my finger heal unmolested. This gave me an opportunity to really examine it for the first time in a couple of years, and remember why I chose it as my personal ring to begin with.

I found it in a cigar box at a garage sale, cleverly concealed as junk, as it was among paper clips, empty pens, spools of thread and whatever else the seller had deemed “crap” and decided to toss in a box—a little family of junk that he was sure no one would be interested in.

After wearing it for a year, one end of the shank popped loose from the back. The repair shop I frequent gets work from around the world. They stay very busy, have several talented Native American artisans on staff, and the work they do is superior. I left the ring in their care, got my ticket and a promise that they'd get around to it within the next 30 days.

When I retrieved the ring I was aghast. The ring was made around 1900 using blacksmithing tools, and had incredible age patina which is something I like on my sterling pieces—it gives them a lived in/loved look. They had polished every aspect of the ring—it looked like it had just come out of the artisans shop.

But that's not the worst of it; they had re-soldered the shank onto the ring 180 degrees out, so the triangle stone was now pointing sideways—not the original design. I was heartbroken. After some bickering I had them put the shank back correctly and inquired as to why they had polished it against my strict instructions. As it turns out, the sterling had been soldered with copper solder, which is not nearly as stable as sterling solder, and once they started working on the shank repair, which entails removing the stone prior to heating the ring, they put the torch to it and it simply fell apart—the copper solder couldn't handle it and it all just let go.

They did a great job of putting it back together, but in order for solder to work correctly, it must be applied to a 100% clean surface, hence the polishing. In my eyes the ring had lost considerable value in it's trip to the repair shop, but I got over it. It's my personal ring, I had no intention of ever selling it due to it's antique nature, amazing Cerrillos mine stone (the mine has been closed for decades) and it's unique design. So I just popped it back on my finger and went about my business.

Here it is a couple of years later, the ring never leaves my finger and it's patina has returned.

There is a ring museum in Las Cruces, New Mexico, run by a rather crusty collector. His collection is outstanding with his focus being on rings made prior to 1930. I offer him rings regularly and I think he's acquired two in the many years we have known each other. On my last visit he finally noticed my ring and was very interested in having it for his collection. I informed him it wasn't for sale and he proceeded to offer me $550 for it. I passed.

I have been encouraged to start a personal collection; pieces I know have significant historical value like this ceremonial buckle by noted Hopi artisan Michael Kabotie or this CG Wallace inspired Zuni Ranger set, that are so beautifully designed and crafted, that I will certainly never see another. Sadly, this is often the case concerning the pieces I offer on the Native Treasures website. At 10 years of study, honing my skills of acquisition and establishing a network of suppliers, I've kept the pieces moving, placing 100s of items in important collections and supplying a few dealers with goods.

I examined the movement thing a while back, and asked myself, “Where's YOUR collection?” I realized I am more interested in acquisition, for the fact that I get to see more and better items that inspire me to raise the bar. And to keep this happening I need funds. I get those funds by moving the gear. I have the pieces for a while, absorb their artistry, and pass them along so I can go do it again.

I have affectively started my collection with this ring. Agreed, it's just a ring, but it's a nice start.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Off Topic

Yup. It's another cute cat picture. Sorry.

This is Chopper. Some kid moved into my courtyard, got him as a kitten, and proceeded to neglect him. He'd leave him locked up in the apartment, alone, for days with nothing but a huge bowl of dry cat food and a bucket of water. Chopper would sit in the window all day screaming to get out.

I'm the self-appointed gardener of the courtyard and when watering I would spray the window where Chopper was sitting. It freaked him out a bit the first couple of times, but he realized he wasn't going to get wet, and took to sitting there while I sprayed the window.

The kid would take the overflowing cat box into the private courtyard behind his place, and just dump it on the ground. This got the landlord excited and Chopper was evicted. The landlord didn't know what the cat looked like, had only seen the cat box evidence, so the kid just kinda kicked Chopper out. He hung around and got fed once in a while when the kid would make a rare appearance at his apartment, so I picked up the slack and fed him regularly.

This led to Chopper hanging with me a lot. He'd follow me around when I was watering, and due to the window spraying, he had little to no fear of water, and would stand inches away from the spray as I watered, whereas the numerous cats that occupy the courtyard would maintain a considerable distance.

I talked to the kid one evening and expressed my concern over Chopper's well being; asked if he had plans to place him with someone. He had none--had opted to let Chopper fend for himself. Chopper, being very young, was learning the ropes when it came to dealing with the adult cats in the courtyard. He got his butt kicked regularly and had no chance of respite cuz the poor guy didn't have anywhere where he could escape their advances. I bit the bullet, bought a case of cat food, and moved him in.

I don't do cat boxes. Chopper's been with me for a couple of weeks now and he is real good about going outside to do his business. The one drawback is that he has chosen to perform this task at 4am on the dot. He employs his "outside voice" in order to wake me to let him out. I don't really mind, I like getting up early, and he's such a sweetheart I seldom scold him for doing so.

Considering adding him to the "About Us" page on the website as the company mascot. But then Chantal would insist on equal billing for her pitbull cross.

I had no part in naming him.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Pupil Speaks

When I was first starting out on this adventure, like in all things you set out to accomplish, there were some stumbling blocks. I made poor acquisition decisions regularly and was tethered to eBay as my source for moving them. I had a good eye, but as per usual, my ADD kept me antsy and I often ended up with pieces that absolutely deserved to be on eBay.

I was learning as much as I could absorb, but the pace was maddening--I couldn't get the info into my head fast enough. My eye served me well in many instances, but I needed to raise the bar.

In my second or third year of involvement in the Native American jewelry trade something important happened. An avid collector purchased a piece from me on eBay, was pleased with his purchase, and we struck up a conversation that led to him becoming the first of my collectors; I now had someone to show my better acquisitions to that would be straight forward with me concerning attributes of a piece that I was either confused about, or just plain wrong.

The flagship image of Native Treasures is a piece he acquired from me as an enhancement to his bolo tie collection. When it landed in my hands, my first thought was of him. I knew it was something special and couldn't wait to show him. He agreed and I felt I had reached a point where my acquisitions skills had improved enough to garner his approval. This was a big deal to me.

During the course of our relationship he has humbled me regularly by correcting my assessment of the pieces I offer him. He has a deep appreciation for the art form, has been a collector for a very long time, and although there was no real motivation for him to assist in my education, he did so without reserve. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude, and I'm pleased that our relationship continues.

I just missed meeting him in person during a recent trip to the east coast. We both had our hands full and the weather was prohibitive (10 to 14 degrees with high winds the whole time I was there). He put me up in a fine hotel and gave me many useful pointers on navigating the landscape. I still haven't a clue as to what he looks like and am hopeful we'll meet one day--I must view his collection as it promises to be a thing of wonder and amazement.

He sits on my shoulder now when I'm in the field--I consider what his opinion would be and it either moves me to acquire, or throws up a big stop sign. The bar has been raised considerably over the years and it's due in part to this man's patient contributions to my knowledge base.

It's a rare thing to meet someone of integrity that also happens to be kind.

I thank you sir. You are truly a gentleman.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Truly Unique American Art Form

Several years ago, when it became apparent that being someone's "employee" was no longer an option for me, I had some hard decisions to make.

Previous to my enduring "employment" as an income source, I made a decent living as a musician; I got to express myself. That was all well and good, but there's a youth factor to be considered, and as my tastes evolved, I found it harder and harder to remain in that particular bread line due to the high cost of living indoors. I still play regularly, but I do it alone and for free.

I had always shown an interest in art even as a child. So, in my 30s, I went to art school and graduated in the top of my class. This led to a string of mind numbing jobs in the commercial art industry. I tried to escape by starting my own advertising firm and it was a success, for a while. I was still someone's "employee" and had to answer to them concerning what their spouses thoughts were on the ads I was creating:

Client: What do you mean I shouldn't be portrayed as the devil?
Me: Last time I checked, Satan was not considered to be a trustworthy character.
Client: But my wife LOVES it!
Me: Why does this not surprise me?

Conversations such as this were the norm, not the exception, and again, I found myself forced to do the bidding of others against my better judgement. Something had to change. Sooner than later.

I had a couple of friends that were antique dealers. Their stories always made it sound like they were enjoying themselves; shopping, research, trading with other dealers and making a reasonable living while doing so. Why not join in the fun?

So I picked a category that interested me--I've always had an appreciation for "old stuff" especially things from the Art Deco period and shortly thereafter. I chose toys as my focus. I studied up, tried to memorize huge volumes of toy pricing guides, manufacturers of note from around the world, conferred with the few toy aficionados I could find and started my search. Turns out Albuquerque is far from being a mecca for vintage toys and I floundered. Oh, I made a few bucks here and there when I got lucky, but getting lucky in the toy market proved illusive. I pushed onward, determined to find the source of vintage toys in New Mexico.

Making the garage sales was imperative, according to my successful friends, and while I was making the rounds one Friday morning, and digging through a 5 gallon can of what appeared to be urine specimen bottles and rusty gardening tools, I spotted a turquoise ring at the bottom of the pile. Time stopped. It was the proverbial "diamond bullet to the forehead." Upon examining the ring I realized it had been made with some considerable effort, was beautifully designed and apparently very old. These are things I can get behind--hard work resulting in a thing of beauty. I am familiar with that; have an understanding of the mind set required to pull it off.

Toys? What toys?

I dedicated myself anew. New volumes of information now garnered my attention, and the more I learned, the more I liked what I had chosen as my new undertaking. The wealth of information on the subject of Native American jewelry is mind boggling. Documentation starts around the turn of the century and expands exponentially as time marched forward. Native Americans, having been forced to live in the white man's world, were adrift; their culture all but eliminated. There were a handful of native artisans that were producing jewelry on a very small scale for use in the few tribal rituals that remained intact, and as every day adornment for their fellow tribe members. But when the US highway system was put in place their numbers multiplied due to the tourist trade. People traveling through the Southwest wanted to take a piece of it home with them, so the established artisans taught their craft to anyone caring to learn. And presto! Food on the table for a change.

There are countless varieties of jewelry available to consumers; have been since the first person poked a hole in a pretty rock, ran a string through it and hung it around their neck. Yet when you compare ingenuity, creativity and attention to detail, you'll be hard pressed to match that which the Native American Indian has achieved in the last century.

I've been studying for close to a decade now, and have barely scratched the surface. Anyone who tells you they have Native American jewelry attributes "in their pocket" is sadly mistaken. Oh, I know plenty, but good grief, there is so much more to learn. It's proving to be a pleasant journey.