Curios and the Curious

Back in the late 1970s I was traveling through New Mexico with my parents, die- hard New Yorkers who knew nothing of the west.  We happened upon the trading post at Gallup, where my mother started chatting with the lady owner.  All I remember from that conversation was the fact that my mother was totally astounded that the woman had never heard of Broadway in NYC. Here was evidence of the singular culture of the west, more isolated then and certainly unique, and it was all around me in that shop.  The fact that, here, there was no yearning for The Great White Way as Broadway is occasionally called, but something more positive, more organic, moved me completely.

Then something else happened.  My parents bought me a Navajo-made waterfall necklace:  seven delicate strands of liquid silver and turquoise to grace my then-youthful neck.  I thought it was the most wonderful thing I possessed (and still do possess)—and so a love affair was begun.  Native American jewelry.

The curio trade of Native American Arts in the southwest began in the 1880s when anyone with a storefront, from grocers to undertakers, started trading in native goods.  Predominantly pottery, weaving and baskets done by women, the curio trade took off when the railroad came in and with the advent of mail order catalogues.  Silversmithing was originally brought from Mexico in the 1870s when items were traded for livestock and other goods.  But the cost of the materials and the labor required to make one small item proved prohibitive for Native Americans; early pieces were most likely made by smiths of European origin, many from the Canon City, CO penitentiary.

Between 1900 and 1925, the rise in demand for southwest silver jewelry was meteoric.  Pueblo (predominantly Zuni and Santo Domingo), Hopi and Navajo men found employment in curio shops where they were trained to do the store’s own designs and used as living exhibitions, sometimes working in the store front window.   By the 1930s, silversmiths were trained at the Indian Schools.  The silver used was mostly Mexican pesos or other pure silver coins that were hand worked. In the southwest and the Rockies, the demand became almost impossible to meet and so the dealers, who controlled the entire industry, started to bring in mechanization.  In the 1930s, the first machines were used as was sheet silver which saved time for the artisan. However, it proved difficult to get a balance between saving time and putting out more products vs. the possibility of unemployment due to overproduction.  Enter the United Indian Trader Association.  UITA was formed after a bill failed to pass in Congress protecting Indian-made products.  They pressured government to prosecute curio shops advertising “Indian Made Jewelry” which was machine made, even if by Native Americans.

In 1941, the Museum of Modern Art in New York had an exhibition, “Indian Arts of the U.S.” thereby giving the curio trade an air of legitimacy above that of being just souvenirs.  Hallmarking, which started after WWII and became prevalent by the 1960s, also helped; even today, some shops still give you a certificate of authenticity with a purchase, particularly if it is not signed.  Long gone are the prices between $1.50 and $60 for a bracelet—work by certain artists has skyrocketed in price, along with the price of silver, ingots and sheet silver now being used.

Parallel to this, the Fred Harvey Company was expanding, building restaurants and hotels along the line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.  A man by the name of Herman Schweizer started work with the company aged 16 in 1887, managing a lunch room at Coolidge, NM.  There he sold Navajo craftwork.  Most of the jewelry he sold was pawn, but Schweizer soon found these items too heavy for tourist taste.  He had the turquoise mines in NV cut the stones thinner so that lighter weight bracelets and other items could be made. When Schweizer was eventually appointed Head of the company’s Indian Dept. to supply all their curio shops with goods, a certain style now known as ‘Fred Harvey Jewelry’ was born.  (See photo 1)

photo 1

My Fred Harvey bracelet

Most are truly Native American-made since the company stopped carrying anything machine-made when those items were banned from the national parks.  My own bracelet pictured here was purchased in Jackson, WY.

It’s interesting that Schweizer found pawn jewelry disliked by the tourists since pawn these days commands excellent prices.  Generally heavier pieces made for the artisan himself, they tend to be wide with much stonework.  Last summer in Santa Fe I came upon this piece (photo 2) which I was told ‘might be pawn from the 1950s.’  It goes to show how little some of the shop owners actually know, and how careful one must be.  I loved it because of the unusual stone—rather than turquoise, it has sugilite, a purplish mineral first discovered in 1944.  Most likely the stone came down from Canada as it is not mined in the U.S.  But it was the signature that was the real give-away:

Silver and Sugilite bracelet by Kirk Smith

“Kirk Smith.”  A Navajo, Smith lived in Crown Point, NM and won many awards, but his work only started in the 1970s..  His style is singular; he favored heavy bracelets of the old pawn style, with intricate silver work and large stones. Smith passed away in a road rage accident between the time I wrote this piece and posting it. I’m honored to be able to own his work.

On the same trip, my daughter and I were going to see Mesa Verde National Park, more than thirty-five years after my first visit to New Mexico and Colorado.  We drove into nearby Cortez, CO   spotting an interesting shop on our way to lunch.  Over our meal, I told my daughter the story of the Gallup Trading Post, just as I wrote here at the beginning of this piece.  We sauntered over to the shop for a look around, greatly impressed at the variety and quality it carried.  The couple who ran the shop were very friendly and we chatted with them quite a bit, learning that this was their last summer before retirement. My daughter, Cristal, fell in love with a bracelet (photo 3) and called me over to see it.  I, too, fell in love with it and so we argued as to which one of us would buy it.  It was signed D. Reeves.  We were told the tragic story of David Reeves:  a gifted silversmith, his wife had shot him dead believing him to be cheating on her.  It was only after his death that she learned that he had been faithful all along.

Cristal and I continued our argument as to who would get the bracelet when the woman asked us to wait a moment.  She briefly left the shop and returned with a virtually identical bracelet from her own jewelry case so that we might each have one.  It was later as we were paying for these that I learned one more fact which, even as I write it now, makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

She was the woman from the Gallup Trading Post.

Our 2 bracelets by David Reeves

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Further Reading:

Batkin, Jonathon:  The Native American Curio Trade in New Mexico, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 2008

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18 responses to “Curios and the Curious

  1. How fantastic – I have a bracelet and a ring that my grandparents bought in New Mexico as a gift for me in the 1960s, and another ring that was a gift to my mother in the 1930s. I bought some jewelry myself in Albuquerque at the Indian Cultural center – but nothing as lovely as the Kirk Smith bracelet.

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    • How wonderful Celia, I’m jealous though I do own Navajo earrings from the 1930s, and my daughter has a wonderful 1930s Santo Domingo arrow ring. In those days they generally couldn’t afford silver and so made jewelry from just about anything. I wonder whether you have hallmarks or markings on the back of your items and whether you can tell if they used pesos or ingots. Should be pesos on the ring. You’ll have to show them to me next conference!

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  2. What a great post, especially the ending. I love stumbling across those hidden treasures in little family-owned shops.

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  3. What a fascinating, and informative, curio story. I remember those curio shops you speak about here, as I travelled with my family to our new home in Tucson in the late 60s and the shops were a “fixture” everywhere in the southwest. In my young mind, I wondered how those beautiful pieces were made and wished I could have just one necklace or maybe a ring.

    As I read your blog and came to the Kirk Smith part, his name caught my attention for a second time in as many weeks. I quickly remembered that he was a friend of the couple who own the Tanner Chaney gallery we visited in Old Town Albuquerque! Where I purchased two pair of earrings for my birthday! Remember as we waited for the gallery to open we sat very close together on the patio as the chairs were cabled together 🙂 There is a mention of Kirk Smith on the Tanner Chaney website’s home page.

    Funny that we spent a few days at the Women Writing the West Conference in Albuquerque recently, admiring each other’s jewlery, and it’s not until we arrived back home that we realize our paths must have crossed somewhere back in time…

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    • Alice, it is funny about our paths crossing –but I find that all the time when I’m out west. Two years ago I was at a ranch just outside of Jackson and I started to tell the story of someone I had met at another, nearby ranch back in the mid-80s. The person with whom I was speaking knew this other fellow immediately–despite it being more than 30 years later. Then, of course, there was the woman from the trading post…But it surely won’t be 30 years ’til you and I meet up again!

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  4. Very interesting, most of which I did not know. I admire Indian jewelry, but can’t wear it or much of any other kind for some reason. It makes me nervous and I have to take it off. I’ve walked along the sidewalks of Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque, and other places admiring the work, but that’s as far as it goes for me. Odd huh? 🙂

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    • Yup, that’s strange Eunie. Have to say I take stuff off as soon as I get home but my daughter wears an armload of bracelets and bangles, fingers–and toes–loaded with rings all the time!

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  5. Fascinating, Andi. I have purchased turquoise jewelry from time to time, mostly at stands in Canyon de Chelly or the Navajo reservation, but not bracelets or rings. I should expand. The history you write about it something I am not familiar with, although we have traveled extensively in the Southwest–and did so again before the Conference. Fun to meet you there!

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  6. Even I, from across the pond, have some turquoise Indian jewellery, bought when Ron and I visited Phoenix, Arizona – and then some more from Tucson! I loved this heart warming story! You always wore such lovely pieces when we met for our theatre trips in London! I look forward to seeing the bracelet!

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  7. Very good story, I am like you I love jewelry

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  8. Andi,
    Personal history with a twist! Great stuff. Best.
    Paul

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  9. Hi Andi,
    I love the serendipity in your stories. It’s always amazing when paths cross unexpectedly but to do so over Southwestern jewelry makes it even more beautiful.

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    • Thanks Arletta. I have to admit I was pretty amazed, as was Cristal,that I met up with this woman again after nearly forty years! And right after I had told my daughter the Gallup story over lunch… Thanks for your comment.

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