Santo Domingo Pueblo’s Depression Jewelry
BY CINDRA KLINE
Following the 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression, spectacularly inventive jewelry crafted from found, repurposed, and plastic materials, appeared for sale from residents of Santo Domingo Pueblo.
Santo Domingo (now often referred to as Kewa Pueblo) benefited from its location near both the Santa Fe Railway and the highway for selling these wonderful and, at the time, wonderfully affordable pieces.
“Oh, I remember my parents giving me one of those necklaces,” exclaimed a visitor to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s current turquoise exhibition, incredulous that a childhood memory was now on display. “I kept it in my ‘treasure chest’ as a child, but I never knew what it was made of.”
Many examples of these unique treasures may be seen in Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning, running through May 2, 2016. And “what it was made of” is a great part of the appeal of this fascinating stuff. Long lumped into the category of “tourist” jewelry and dismissed by many as reconfigured trash for travelers, this unique form of personal adornment was, in fact, embraced and beloved by Native Americans—young, old, men and women, from Santo Domingo and beyond—and proudly worn in important moments and photographs.
There is nothing depressing about this “Depression jewelry,” which is also often called “thunderbird” jewelry. Many examples employ joyful bird designs, burst with color, and display brilliant innovation. A side benefit to its incorporation of manufactured materials is that it is quite lightweight and therefore comfortable to wear, whereas older, dense, silver items, such as squash blossom necklaces, can be heavy when worn for lengthy periods around the neck.
Weight is not a factor to be taken lightly. Herman Schweizer, the savvy buyer and merchandiser for the Fred Harvey Company from the early 1900s through the 1950s, dictated that lighter-weight versions of heavier Native items be made for sale to train travelers and tourists, ultimately resulting in a glut of thin, inexpensive, and bench-made jewelry that today is often referred to as “Harvey jewelry.” Bench jewelry is not necessarily fake or imitation, since many lovely items were mass-produced by Native smiths, but there’s no way around what it was— the product of a commercially driven production line where everyone shared silver stamps, stones, and styles, and creativity was not free form, but dictated by Anglo traders. Santo Domingo’s Depression-era jewelry is something else altogether: a truly home-grown creative innovation, appreciated by both Native and non-Native aficionados.
Trade and Trade-Offs
Angie Reano Owen, renowned sixty-eight-year-old mosaic jewelry artist at Santo Domingo, reported that her sister learned to work silver at the former Bell Trading Post, in Albuquerque. “Not Maisel’s,” she clarified. Maisel’s Indian Trading Post still operates in Albuquerque, with its famed “peer through the floor” workshop, where visitors can observe items being crafted. Owen does not work silver but prefers instead to do inlay mosaics, using a black background because, she said, “In the old days, piñon pitch [predating store-bought glue and adhesives] was darkened with soot, and I like that look.”
The “curio company” items from Maisel’s, Tammen, Lester’s, and Arrow Novelty, among others, and Harvey jewelry are of a time and place, and often contain terrific turquoise stones, but the pieces rarely feel inspired or authentic because they were churned out, one after another, with a series of meaningless marks stamped on the sides. Author and poet Harold Witter Bynner, an avid collector of quality early Native American jewelry, lamented in a 1936 feature article for New Mexico Magazine, “An unimaginative and tinny jewelry is being imposed upon credulous and tasteless buyers in the name of Indians.”
“It was a time of a dealer or someone giving ideas. Maisel’s started providing us stamps,” recalled Owen. “But my mom had her own patterns for the new plastic jewelry, and she’d whack them out. Make a big pile.” Owen smiled. “Plastic was great for quick turnover. And as kids, our job was to drill holes in the gypsum for beads, because it is very soft and we could work fast.” Gypsum was simple to work with and readily available near the pueblo: White Sands National Monument is rolling dunes of fine gypsum crystals.
Attribution and Substitution
Owen, who has a contemporary mosaic shell cuff in Turquoise, Water, Sky, recalled the “silly stamps” with thunderbirds and such that were supplied by traders and curio companies, and dismissed them with a roll of her eyes. On the other hand, “the mosaic work is prehistoric,” she said. “And Santo Domingo supplied everyone, even though others get the credit for our work. The cottonwood mosaic earrings always called Hopi? We made many of those. Santo Domingo loves to trade. Zuni Pueblo gets credit for a lot of the carving and stonework done here. Me and my ex-husband used to pick up materials from Joe Garcia [at Santo Domingo] and take [the worked piece] back to Zuni, and then later, it would be attributed to Zuni.”
What’s the history of the “thunderbird” label often applied to these pieces? Owen said, “I don’t know. Maybe a trader started to call them that. We didn’t really have specific names for it. We just got creative with different styles and shapes.” When asked about whether some pendants are songbirds, or other types of birds, she shrugged. “Just birds,” she said.
Another term for this type of jewelry is “car battery” necklaces, because those batteries supplied so much of the jet-colored plastic material they were made from. (Thick, six-volt black plastic car-battery casings were produced from about 1920.) Turquoise, Water, Sky includes a Santo Domingo squash blossom necklace collected by Edgar Lee Hewett between 1930 and 1950, with a dense, jet naja pendant. The placement of a necklace made with genuine jet next to car-battery-casing jewelry provides an interesting opportunity for considering replication and substitution. Visitors peer at the jewelry through protective glass, but even with close examination it is sometimes difficult to discern the difference between the precious black stone and the plastic, and the artists likely considered the car batteries an amazing blessing, a newfound substitute for the rare and coveted jet.
The self-driven expression of Santo Domingo’s carved car-battery and plastic jewelry makes it unique and, perhaps most importantly, authentic. Bynner’s creative sensibilities were drawn to the imaginative expression of Depression-jewelry decoration. Despite the irony of its being made from discarded or man-made materials, there’s a purity to it. Simple tab necklaces, utilizing shells and mosaic inlay of various shapes, preceded the predominance of thunderbird pieces. The collection Bynner donated to MIAC contains many of that style, and some of his beloved Santo Domingo pieces appear in Turquoise, Water, Sky.
The ludicrous definitions assigned to “genuine Indian motifs” pressed into sheet-silver bracelets have long plagued traders, dealers, and the buying public. “Does this array of stamps tell a story?” and “What do they mean?” are questions prompted by combinations of suns and “lightning snakes” and other symbols, Anglo interpretations perpetuated on postcards and in curio cat alogs. Bynner ranted against “petty factories” where “Indians sit in small rows and fabricate jewelry under white direction, with arrows and swastikas and thunder-birds provided in stamps by the factory keeper,” adding that “factories can take art away from Indians and poetry out of people.”1 Researcher John Adair, in the field in 1938, wrote in his classic book, Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers, that when he asked Navajo silversmiths about the significance of the stamped-bracelet symbols, “All five of them laughed at this question and their attitude seemed to indicate that the designs were meaningless to them. Their reaction was like that of a white man if he were asked what the circles on his necktie meant.” 2
Birds of a Feather
The bird necklaces of Santo Domingo flew above such nonsense. Families worked together and in many instances fashioned distinctive looks, although this jewelry was not signed by the makers. (The majority predates the hallmarking of even Native American silver jewelry.)
Santo Domingo Pueblo claims one of the longest traditions of jewelry making of any of New Mexico’s pueblos. Its distinctive jewelry was born of a purpose and word-of-mouth, a community cleverness about resources and materials during financially challenging times, and shared knowledge about how to best to work those new materials—invention integrating the past. Its vision and creativity elevate it to another level from curio shop silver jewelry.
Navajos did not learn to work and decorate silver until the later 1800s, and that then became their focus, but Santo Domingo’s tradition of working stone hearkens back to the prehistoric era. Santo Domingo’s proximity to prehistoric turquoise mines of the Cerrillos mine region ties the pueblo to the turquoise that has transfixed humanity for about 6,000 years. Turquoise and shell have been paired for personal adornment for millennia. Mosaic-on-shell items date to the early Hohokam culture in southeastern Arizona approximately 1,500 years ago and to Chaco Canyon about 1,000 years ago, and the source of much of that turquoise was near Santo Domingo.
Accessibility to the railroad certainly was integral to the trade in bird necklaces. Owen recalled her father “hopping the train” to ride back and forth to Trinidad, Colorado, to sell her mother’s necklaces. The practice of selling this work on trains, in the heyday of Fred Harvey travel and popularity, is important, but these items are not “Harvey jewelry.” Santo Domingos independently pulled together to fashion these designs, which remained true to their beliefs in and love and celebration of birds; no Anglo trader dictated them. And the jewelry became appreciated by fellow and neighboring Pueblo residents. Archival photographs abound showing Navajo, Cochiti, and San Ildefonso residents wearing these types of necklaces, intrigued by its affordability and vibrant colors. Sure, it was made to sell to tourists and soldiers, but Santo Domingo’s Pueblo neighbors “got it” and embraced the items for personal wear, as they had embraced jaclas, heishi, and other Santo Domingo–produced items long acquired in trade.
Love in the Making
Bynner, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1881 and died in Santa Fe in 1968, also “got it,” and ran with it. He gained fame for his reviews, poetry, and interpretation of the Chinese classic, Tao Te Ching. He traveled with D. H. Lawrence, who’d been enticed to come to the Southwest by Mabel Dodge Luhan, who introduced Bynner to Lawrence. Not a shy writer, Bynner took on Luhan in Cake, a play satirizing her life. “In Cake, Mabel’s lifelong dream of being ruler of her own cosmos is given ironic fulfillment,” wrote her biographer, Lois P. Rudnick.3 A friend of Samuel Clemens, Bynner surrounded himself with art and creativity, and ran in the same social circles as Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe.
In “Designs for Beauty,” a 1936 article, Bynner wrote as a lover of Native material: “Let me repeat and repeat, [Indians] can create for themselves and through themselves for us, decorative belongings as distinguished and personal and aesthetically important as the decorative belongings which for centuries have graced the Orient.” And as a frustrated collector, he stated, “I can instinctively and instantly reject the fake design, the design which means nothing to the maker. . . . The quality that makes any object beautiful is the love that goes into its making.”
That love in the making infuses Owen’s recollections. “Mom had her own production going,” Owen proudly recalled. “She had a special bench—my dad built a bench, going across,” she said, showing where it stood in her pueblo living room, “and my mom sat here by this window. My dad came up with tools. He was very clever at making tools. Mom would warm the car battery in the wood stove. There was no gas, no electrical. She’d put it in the stove, and she would take it out and take a sharp knife, which Dad built her. He made her a sharp knife, just like the kind you carve with, but he shortened it. It had a long handle. And she would just lean on it and slice the plastic.”
Woolworth’s and World Wars
Over a decade ago, in an interview, the late Santo Domingo jewelry maker Wilmer Calabaza recalled his family seeking out Woolworth’s dinner plates “because they had the best red.” But Owens recalled, “Where we got the red plastic from was headbands. Plastic headbands that you push, to put back the hair. So far as I remember, all of that came from those headbands. Santo Domingos used to buy them at the Albuquerque Woolworth’s on Central.” (It opened in 1915; Woolworth’s on the Santa Fe Plaza opened in 1935.) She smiled at the intricate feather details on a few bird pendants and said, “Those are from hair combs.” The teeth of the combs make perfect tail feathers.
Silver was scarce during the Second World War, and Owen remembered that soldiers were their best customers. She also recalled “being put under the porch” to sell for her parents, referring to the still thriving practice of Native artists selling their work beneath the portal of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. She is adamant about the pricing: “My mother always made earrings to go with the necklaces, and those sold for 25 cents. But $1.50 was the price,” at least around Santa Fe. Owen recalled, “My sister spent a summer in Springfield, Illinois, with family friends who owned a miniature golf course. They took her to Wisconsin Dells,” a midwestern resort town, “and she got five dollars for [a necklace]!” Given the era, that remains a fond and important family detail. Owen also recalled her father selling to and consigning with R. L. Cox in Albuquerque, primarily a fur and hide dealer, who specialized in moving material throughout the country, including pottery.
Today, the earrings are rarer than the necklaces—in the era of screwback earrings they were easily lost. But most of them have hand-fashioned findings of thin, twisted wire, looped to hold the commercially produced clip. If one is fortunate enough to find a pair today, they are easily converted to contemporary wires or French clips.
A Passion for Plastic
Fast forward to the 1960s. In Mike Nichols’s 1967 classic, The Graduate, Ben (Dustin Hoffman) is famously cornered with this advice:
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Ben: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of the impact of plastic on the zeitgeist, this classic movie scene reveals how plastic of the early to mid-twentieth century was highly regarded—far removed from our current focus on reducing and recycling that material. “I can’t believe something made with plastic and car batteries is now in museums” has been an oft-heard comment during Turquoise, Water, Sky.
Bakelite plastic was invented in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, and the versatility of plastic proved irresistible. The First World War caused a scarcity of metal, and early plastics became a sought-after substitute. Jewelry designers such as Coco Chanel were drawn to the plastic’s bright colors and manufacturing options. Early plastics enjoyed glammed-up trade names, including Marblette and Prystal (for a near-clear form of “plastic crystal”), but plastic eventually became the dominant generic term. In 1924 Time magazine voted Baekeland their Man of the Year, quoting him as saying he was proud to have invented “a non-melting, non-dissolving solid like nothing else found in nature.” Decades after its invention, Bakelite is regarded as a specific, often expensive form of collectible plastic, but Baekeland’s comment highlights this oddity: Pueblo peoples, for whom nature is everything, and who are accustomed to working with natural materials, long ago embraced the future.
In Santo Domingo Pueblo’s lengthy tradition of jewelry making, skills are handed down through generations, and creating jewelry is a family endeavor. For Santo Domingo pieces of this time period, no less work was involved in utilizing headbands, dinner plates, or even the occasional Dairy Queen spoon than in polishing the finest, priciest blood-red coral. Any child who has bent the long handle of a red Dairy Queen spoon on a steamy summer day and seen it turn pink-white at the crease understands that spoons intended for a quick lick and disposal might not be the most forgiving raw material for jewelry, especially for artists accustomed to working with stone, coral, or shell (heishi is traditionally made by rolling material against a stone surface to make strings of smooth beads that nestle snugly together). But the new plastics provided an opportunity to replicate, inexpensively, looks known and loved with new and creatively acquired materials.
Once their innovative, unusual jewelry practice was established, residents seized the opportunity. Santo Domingos are adept at learning to “go with the flow”; centuries earlier, this pueblo moved many times due to flooding before settling at its present location. The pueblo moved prior to 1591 and again in 1605, but repeated flooding of the Rio Grande caused additional adjustments until 1886. Progress and tourism determined that Santo Domingo would ultimately be near both the train tracks and the busy highway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the ideal place for trade.
And the trade and the market are still evolving. A woman on Museum Hill proudly showed off her Depression/thunderbird/ car-battery necklace: “Decades ago, I found it charming and inexpensive,” she said. “But now these things are pricey!” That is true. A quality piece of Santo Domingo Depression jewelry today has more than one extra zero tacked to the original price of $1.50 or even the Owens’ memorable Wisconsin Dells sale of $5.00.
Move the decimal. Move your understanding of the perceived value of materials. Now displayed alongside the most precious examples of turquoise, these products of Depression-era ingenuity are officially museum-quality treasures.
1. Cindra Kline, Navajo Spoons: Indian Artistry and the Souvenir Trade, 1880s–1940s (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press), 95.
2. John Adair, Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 101.
3. Lois Palken Rudnick, Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), 245.