In this exhibition, all that glitters isn’t gold: It’s the stunning Navajo jewelry of the Yazzie family.
According to the Navajo creation story, the tribe’s ancestors traveled through chaotic, sunless worlds before reaching a fourth plane of existence — earth world, a glittering world drenched in light.
Today the Navajo still inhabit this land, a swath of sun-scorched desert stretching from northeastern Arizona to patches of New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. But tucked away in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian – New York, a similarly sparkling, albeit smaller-scale, sphere exists: a retrospective dedicated to the Yazzies, a close-knit group of Navajo kin who are recognized by collectors and curators alike as one of the Southwest’s preeminent jewelry-making families.
The exhibition — aptly titled Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family — features ropes of stamped silver beads and squash blossom necklaces dripping with coral and turquoise. Concho belts, rings, bracelets, and bolos glisten in display cases, the overhead light illuminating intricate lapidary work and sculpted silver and gold settings.
But Glittering World isn’t just a treasure-trove of handcrafted heirlooms, says jewelry historian and author Lois Sherr Dubin, the exhibition’s guest curator. On one level, it chronicles the importance of adornment in Navajo culture, delving into the historical, cultural, and commercial facets that shaped the Yazzies’ craftsmanship and aesthetic. But the show also tells the family’s origin story, tracing their gradual ascent from a humble hogan near Gallup, New Mexico, to the world stage.
Most individuals in the Yazzie family have worked as jewelers, with 10 out of 13 of the current generation’s members having earned a living from the art. Glittering World reflects this tradition and includes works by mother, father, nine siblings, and two nieces. As much as the show really is a family affair, it concentrates on Lee A. and Raymond C. Yazzie, two brothers whose works, Dubin says, are unparalleled in both craftsmanship and vision. “They insist on using the finest materials, they never repeat a design, and they take as much time to complete a piece of work as is necessary,” Dubin says.
Lee, at 68, and Raymond, 55, can’t remember a time when they weren’t surrounded by turquoise stones and silver wire. Their parents, Elsie and Chee Yazzie, supplemented the modest income Chee brought home working for the railroad with money they made from silversmithing. But while both brothers had the trade in their blood, neither of them knew they’d someday become master jewelers.
Lee, a highly accomplished student who was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his high school classmates, briefly attended Brigham Young University. He planned to study accounting, but a botched hip surgery sent him home to convalesce in New Mexico. There, he helped his newly divorced mother support his younger siblings by making silver beads for her squash blossom necklaces.
Local traders recognized his innate talent, and Lee soon found himself serving as an assistant to renowned Hopi jeweler Preston Monongye. Lee spent six years collaborating on a number of award-winning pieces, but he longed to create his own work. When he eventually went solo, he honed his skills working on independent commissions for local traders. His reputation steadily grew among collectors, who admired his deftness with both precious jewels and metalwork.
“I originally didn’t want to be a jeweler,” Lee says. “I bellyached about not being able to finish college. ... I thought making jewelry was below me. But all of a sudden, I started realizing the sacrifices that my mother, my dad, and my ancestors made for us [to be in this trade] ... and I realized [what I do] is amazing.”
Although he shared Lee’s upbringing and talent, Raymond carved his own career path and vision. As the 11th child, he wasn’t shooed away from his parents’ workbench like his older siblings. Instead, he spent his youth observing and learning to make simple designs, intent on excelling like his older brother. Under Lee’s tutelage, Raymond won his first Best of Show at the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial at the tender age of 14.
Raymond’s expertise has only grown over the decades. No piece is too daunting or elaborate. “I’m always trying to make something that’s a little different than what’s already out there,” he says. “Today, I can create whatever it is that’s on my mind. There are no planning stages for me anymore. I can sit down, and if I have the materials in front of me, I can create just about anything there is to create.”
Although both brothers are equally talented at lapidary and metalwork, Raymond excels at complex and colorful stone arrangements, favoring sun face designs and turquoise, coral, opal, lapis, sugilite, and 14-karat gold to inlay his jewelry. Lee’s pieces are more streamlined; he favors turquoise and silver, often using a classic quaternary design, which reflects the Navajo concepts of harmony and balance.
Over the years, the Yazzie brothers have showcased their jewelry at the Intertribal Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, the Santa Fe Indian Market, the Heard Museum Market in Phoenix, and Tanner’s Annual All-Indian Invitational in Scottsdale, Arizona. The two draw inspiration from many sources, large and small — traditional conchos, belt buckles, and squash blossom necklaces; a sunset’s rich shades; a field of maize. (Lee once designed a show-stopping turquoise bracelet in the style of an ear of blue corn, each of its kernels represented by a single precious gem.) But the Yazzies’ skill — along with their fresh interpretations of time-honored Navajo designs — isn’t the only thing that sets them apart from other jewelers.
“They exemplify an idea that’s fundamental to Navajo belief, which is hózhó,” Dubin says. The word is the most important in the Navajo language. “It means that there’s much more [to existence] than superficial beauty. It’s living a life of balance. It means everything you do — the way you work, the way you live, your relationship with other people, what you create.”
In addition, she says, hózhó “is the underlying concept that beauty is not a mere surface quality. It’s something under what you see on the surface. Working with quality. Working with respect. Living with quality and respect. Respecting the work of the ancestors. Respecting the beliefs. Having a sense of place where you come from.”
It was their sense of hózhó that told Lee and Raymond not to participate in Glittering World unless their entire family was included. So along with their pieces, the exhibition also features work by their sisters, Mary Marie, Lola, Marie, Shirley, Cindy, and Lillie; as well as by brother Jimmy B. Also on view are handmade silver beads by nieces Sheena and Taisheena Long.
It’s only fitting — and in keeping with hózhó — that for the Yazzies, jewelry and family go hand in hand. The love of family and the work they love are the ties that bind. “You have to love your family,” Lee says. “We are all responsible for each other. We understand that we’re all individuals, but we know that sometimes we need a helping hand here and there.”
That, you might say, is the source of light in their glittering world.
Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family is on view through January 10, 2016, at the National Museum of the American Indian–New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green. The companion book by Lois Sherr Dubin, with a preface by Manuelito Wheeler, is available on Amazon.com.
From the August/September 2015 issue.