Saving Every Last Bit For Santo Domino’s Mosaic Jewelry
BY CINDRA KLINE
Turquoise is the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s contribution to Santa Fe’s Summer of Color.
Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning explores the importance of turquoise as a color representing water to residents of arid regions. Running through May 2, 2016, the exhibition examines the use of turquoise through the ages, including its role in personal adornment. Large chunks of spectacular turquoise from legendary mines are incorporated into many of these pieces, but so prized are the stone and its color that even the tiniest bits of turquoise have been saved and used for jewelry making.
Santo Domingo Pueblo (now often referred to as Kewa Pueblo), south of Santa Fe, near the Cerrillos Hills and their historic turquoise mines, has long been known for stonework, bead making, and savvy trading. Maxine McBrinn, MIAC curator, noted that despite the show’s stunning examples of silver work containing impressive individual stones, “the Santo Domingo pieces hold their own, by having such a unique aesthetic.”
This essay continues an examination of Santo Domingo’s thrifty use of turquoise chips and repurposed plastic in jewelry crafting (see El Palacio 120, 1 [spring 2015]). The pueblo became known for its unique style of jewelry prevalent during the Great Depression. Sometimes called “battery” or “thunderbird” jewelry, and long considered cheap goods made for tourists, Santo Domingo’s artistic and ingenious designs were valued by collectors and Native neighbors. Our examination of this jewelry continues here with the sources of the colors used in it, the lineage of its styles, and some of the traders who bought and disseminated it beyond New Mexico.
Santo Domingo Pueblo has long been recognized for its mosaic techniques. Angie Reano Owen, Santo Domingo inlay artist, has a bracelet in Turquoise, Water, Sky that is the contemporary apotheosis of this style. It features a tiny, inlaid orange spiny-oyster shell and Red Mountain turquoise mosaic, held together with glue that mimics the traditional piñon pitch, dyed black with soot. Owen learned jewelry making as a child at home with her parents, and recalls making “Depression bird jewelry” as a girl. She is not only an heir to the Santo Domingo jewelry traditions, but also a source of information about the styles, techniques, materials, trading, and distribution of Santo Domingo Depression jewelry.
Owen’s love for her work runs deep. “I started with mosaics,” she said. “When you are drilling and it breaks—we saved everything, [including] crumbled turquoise. Santo Domingo is always looking for what to work with.” Another Santo Domingo resident (whose name is withheld to respect privacy) recalled similar thriftiness and creativity when helping his family make battery necklaces in the 1950s. To make a bead, he explained, first cut the turquoise into a small square. Then snip off the corners of the bead with pliers to form an octagon prior to drilling, and reserve the chips for mosaic.
Certain colors in addition to turquoise are prevalent in Santo Domingo Depression jewelry. While jet was a prized black stone, Depression jewelry often substitutes black plastic from discarded car battery casings—an ingenious replacement, since in 1920 a battery was lucky to last a year, and discards were plentiful.
In lieu of traditional red coral, the red plastic from Dairy Queen spoons and Woolworth headbands substituted for the sought-after color. Other colors, such as yellows or blues, were far less common and thus, today, are highly sought after. The yellow found in this jewelry has often been attributed to toothbrush handles, but Owen recalled that “different colors come from 45 [rpm] records.” Children’s records of the mid-twentieth century were often brightly colored. The yellow of Little Golden Records, produced from 1948 to 1962, perfectly matches many pieces from the 1950s and 1960s. (A fine 1950s Santo Domingo bolo tie containing yellow plastic is on view in Turquoise, Water, Sky.) As colored plastic proliferated in the decades following the Depression, Santo Domingo residents were always on the lookout for discarded plastic to break up for necklaces, and the progression from natural materials to plastic opened the eyes of artists to new color possibilities.
The white used in this unique jewelry came from both plastic and natural sources. White plastic was used in mosaic and inlay processes, but the white beads came from bone or gypsum. At Santo Domingo Pueblo, gypsum was plentiful, and the preferred material, because it was easy to carve and drill. Gypsum is a soft stone and can be bright white. It is found only eight miles from the pueblo in a massive, exposed deposit sixty feet deep and a mile long. “Gypsum had always been mined, then the white man—excuse my term, ‘white man’—took over,” said Owen. She recalled that bone was “not supposed to be used” in necklaces, although another Santo Domingo resident recalled that his family used “cow bone, chicken bone, goat bone, any kind of bone but human.” While it is sometimes assumed that bone examples are older, the choice was often simply a question of availability at a given time. “Just because it looks older doesn’t mean it is older,” cautioned Owen. Bone tends to be yellower in tone and develops visible dark lines and cracks as it ages. New gypsum is easily distinguished from bone because of its brightness, but as it is worn, time, oils, and the elements darken its color, producing a yellowish tinge that can mimic bone. Because of its softness, gypsum can disintegrate on its edges, particularly when beads nestle against each other.
Cindra Kline is the author of Navajo Spoons: Indian Artistry and the Souvenir Trade, 1880s–1940s (Museum of New Mexico Press), which received the Southwest Book Award; and senior script advisor for a forthcoming documentary about Mabel Dodge Luhan, Awakening in Taos. She is a frequent contributor to El Palacio. See the companion piece to this article in the spring 2015 issue.
BY MAXINE MCBRINN
Objects speak to us in various ways. Researchers can provide intriguing details about how something was made and where the raw materials came from, and often tell us how the item might have been used. These facts and suppositions are important and allow archaeologists and ethnographers to build an understanding of how people lived at given times and places.
Many of the objects that we care for in the museum also had personal stories associated with them, but we often don’t know these tales because many items are given to us through bequests or are donated by recent owners who don’t know their full history. But occasionally, we are privileged to get a glimpse of the rich social meaning that some objects acquire and can begin to understand what they meant to their owners.
Last year, Jim Jorden, his niece Pam Jorden, and their families donated a necklace made of heishi strung with turquoise mosaic on tabs. The necklace, like many made by Santo Domingo artists in the first half of the 1900s, is a testament to the continuity of regional turquoise-using traditions that were already 1,500 years old, even though the tabs are made of worked battery casing. This necklace, however, comes with a well-documented story. It was given to Gordon Peeler Jorden by her great-aunt, Sarah Elizabeth Frazier Woodruff, sometime around 1929, probably as a high school graduation gift, and was worn with pride by Gordon for the rest of her life.
Sarah Woodruff lived in Santa Fe from 1888, when she moved there with Henry Woodruff, her husband, until his death in 1930. Over most of that period, Henry Woodruff was curator of the Historical Society of New Mexico and worked at the society offices and museum in the Palace of the Governors. After his death, Sarah Woodruff lived with Gordon’s parents in Oklahoma until her own death in 1940. She was buried next to her husband in Santa Fe.
Gordon Peeler was born in 1910. Her great-aunt, Sarah, expecting a boy and having been given the right to name the child, chose “Gordon” in honor of an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War. Despite the odd name choice, Sarah remained an important figure in Gordon’s life, even paying for Gordon’s four years at the University of Oklahoma, a generous act and unexpected because few women attended university at that time. This mosaic tab necklace was one of many gifts given to Gordon by her beloved aunt, but perhaps one that meant more because of the occasion and because it represented Sarah’s home in Santa Fe.
Gordon Jorden wore the Santo Domingo necklace and other Indian jewelry Sarah gave her throughout her adult life, through university, marriage, children, and into old age, as can be seen in this photo of her 102nd birthday celebration. She died on Christmas day, 2013, one day short of her 103rd birthday. Her son, Jim, and the rest of her family donated the necklace to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in memory of her life, her close relationship with her great-aunt Sarah, and Sarah’s love for her adopted home of Santa Fe.
Evolution of a Style
Assigning dates to a piece of Depression jewelry is difficult because we don’t have firm dates for its beginnings, and it was made well into the 1960s and even the 1970s.The Depression necklaces of Santo Domingo are a variant and progression of earlier, tab necklaces, created with jet and bits of turquoise inlay upon bone or shell. A 1920s photograph shows Frank Garcia wearing a necklace with bone tabs. The lighting of this studio photograph reveals a sheen to the black inlay on the bone tabs, which is indicative of jet, not car battery. A 1925 Edward Curtis photo shows a Cochiti woman, Tsaiyatsa, wearing a Santo Domingo tab necklace similar in style to the necklace worn by Garcia. Both Tsaiyatsa’s and Garcia’s necklaces have rounded tabs, whereas the later bird pendant necklaces, cut from battery plastic, typically feature triangular tabs. In a 1935 photograph, San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez wears a Santo Domingo necklace. A 1935 T. Harmon Parkhurst photo shows a little girl, also from San Ildefonso, wearing a necklace with sharply angled bone tabs inlaid with turquoise (see page 38). An early-style tab necklace with a fascinating provenance was recently acquired by MIAC (see sidebar).
Depression thunderbird necklaces were a design evolution from inlayed shells and bone-backed tabs. At some point bird pendants began adorning the tab-necklace style. The Fred Harvey Company had claimed the thunderbird by copyright in 1909, and the dynamic bird motif captured the attention and the imagination of Santo Domingo residents, whose pueblo is near the train lines. The tab necklaces evolved into a shape akin to that of squash blossom necklaces once the bird pendant was applied. Some birds’ wings arch down, making their outline quite similar to that of a squash blossom naja. (Occaionally, Santo Domingo’s bird necklaces are called “squash blossom birds.”) Designs similar to the Harvey company’s thunderbird symbol, rather art deco in nature, were repeated over and over in Santo Domingo necklaces, such as the bird pendant Owen attributes to her mother, Clara Reano.
Mike Goodson is a longtime employee of Albuquerque-based trader R. L. Cox. The company, on First Street in Albuquerque, was listed as a fur and hide trader, but Cox also dabbled in pottery, jewelry, and other popular items (the business remains open today, at 2819 2nd Street SW). Goodson recalled, “Mr. Cox didn’t pick and choose, so we weren’t dealers. His feeling was, ‘I don’t want to take your five best pieces’—it was very decent of him. We are, and were, strictly wholesale. So far as Santo Domingo, they were thrifty at using everything,” Goodson recalled. “When you go to the pueblo, everyone wants to sell you something. They were born to trade. I worked for Mr. Cox for forty-five years, until he died in 2012, and have ledgers here from 1919. I have some old earrings, inlaid—chipped turquoise.”
Cox had accounts with numerous national parks and provided inventory for the gift shops at Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, and others. Owen recalled her father dealing with Mr. Cox, which may be how one of her mother’s necklaces turned up for sale at Verkamp’s Trading Post, at the Grand Canyon. It eventually made its way into a private collection in its original box.
Bill Richardson, a legendary trader in Gallup, remarked in an interview a decade ago that, to the best of his recollection, Native American buttons had never been made or sold on cards for resale until the Great Depression. In 1932 Gallup Indian trader M. L. Woodard began showcasing Navajo and Pueblo buttons. He noted that Indians only began selling their personal buttons after the onset of the Great Depression and wanted to save the oldest and best examples, feeling they were of historical importance. Woodard presented them in innovative displays. In 1952 the Gallup Independent newspaper recognized Woodard’s by-then famous button collection (Woodard had displayed his buttons at World Fairs and other high-profile venues). To meet the new demand from button collectors, Santo Domingo artisans created Depression-style buttons inlaid with battery and plastic, although they were not a regular offering. According to Owen, such buttons were “special order.” The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture holds several of these buttons in its collection, and one is included in Turquoise, Water, Sky.
Buttons, with the occasional pin and bolo, joined the flocks of battery birds that migrated throughout the country from New Mexico for a few decades, first appearing nearly 100 years ago, in the 1920s, and going extinct in the 1970s. Rare specimens are on view in Turquoise, Water, Sky. A catalogue of the exhibition, featuring 142 color photographs of turquoise jewelry, has recently been published by the Museum of New Mexico Press, co-authored by exhibition curator Maxine McBrinn and Ross Altshuler (see page 49). Adds McBrinn, “We feel fortunate to be representing the color turquoise for this summer’s festivities, and to have so many lovely examples for our visitors.”