I had a few hours to myself in Santa Fe recently and was simply overwhelmed by the beauty of it all–the people, the landscape, and the amazing art. Naturally, I gravitated towards the jewelry, but in a town filled with handmade jewelry, how do you decide where to go? Locals and guidebooks alike recommended the Vendors Program at the Palace of Governors for authentic jewelry sold by Native American artists themselves. Prices range from $10 to the many thousands, but the chance to talk to the makers themselves and hear their stories is priceless.
Each morning the vendors arrive on the main historic plaza of Santa Fe to claim a spot under the shade of the long portal (porch) of the Palace of Governors. No tables or fancy placards, just blankets abd tarps with jewelry everywhere. People encourage you to touch and try on, and many vendors have examples of the raw gems and shells that they carefully, painstakingly transform into beautiful jewelry. If you see something you like, but can’t decide, find out the vendor’s schedule–tomorrow may be another day, but there’s no guarantee your favorite vendor (or piece) will be there!
There’s a rich history and tradition to the pieces you will see at the Vendor’s Program. Many of the vendors have been making jewelry for decades; some reflect traditional designs and techniques, others put a modern spin on their pieces, incorporating new textures, shapes, and items for sale. I was fascinated by the beautiful and intricate designs of Mrs. Verdie Mae Lee, who gently and quietly told me about learning her craft at her father’s knee. Even her turquoise has a history–many of the stones have been in her collection for years, and they reflect the color and quality of the past.
Turquoise, although ubiquitous, is not all the same; ask about the source of the stones you see. Many of the most famous mines, with the rarest and most beautiful of colors, are long closed. Consequently, prices will vary significantly based on the color, quality, shape, and availability of the stone. Some vendors cut and shape the stones themselves, which also increases cost and value. There is also an abundance of other semi-precious stones as well as various sea shells –it is amazing what a talented artist can do with a piece of abalone or conch shell. In addition to hand-hammered silver, brass and copper pieces, you will see plenty of stones set in hand-made bezels, and marvelous shaped pieces in which stones are sliced cut and polished, glued together, and then magically transformed by grit and elbow grease into smooth, seamless objects.
For a more modern take on tradition, I found Miriam Ortiz’s happy circle of life designs fun and elegant at the same time. The National Museum of Contemporary Art must think so, too, as I stumbled upon her pieces in their gift shop as well!. Her textured pieces are an effort to capture the look of very old Navajo designs, she says, but in new ways.
The artists at the market are also in the forefront of protecting their legacy. Leonard Paquin has been making jewelry for more than thirty years, returning to his father’s craft after doing many other things in his life. He was part of the group that helped to organize the market, establishing bylaws that hold vendors to a strict standard. He proudly explained that many of the same principles he drafted were ultimately turned into law and are followed by other artisan’s groups around the country. And he offered for sale beautifulpieces, just right for my husband and daughter (shh, they are supposed to be for Hannukah!)(oh, well–I couldn’t wait!)
Finally, on my way back to the hotel, I stumbled upon Lewallen and Lewallen Jewelry and had a delightful time talking to Laura, the owner. She and her late father, Ross Lewallen, created a wealth of whimsical silver beads and charms, and the incredibly unusual Ascent bracelets–a mix of the practical (climbing rope) and the fancy (stones, gems, and beads). As we talked about our mutual love of jewelry, Laura told me the story of some of her handmade beads, including the EWOP, or Everything Works Out Perfectly, bead, a motto I thought everyone in my family could use. Her dad used the
phrase in his spiritual teachings, and it just struck me as a great way to remember to take a breath and enjoy what comes your way. Laura also let me peek inside her studio–thanks to Syd, whom I believ she called a singing cowboy as well as an artist and jeweler, for showing me around!
The generosity of spirit and the pride in craft so evident among the people I spoke with reminded me of why I love making jewelry. People put a bit of themselves, their history, and their traditions into their work. And with so many rich traditions to choose from in Santa Fe, it’s no wonder that I can’t wait to go back to see and do more.