Collectors from all over the world and Silversmiths from all over Indian Country converge at Ernie Montoya's Sunwest Silver, one of the biggest turquoise operations in North America.
On a recent summer day at 8 a.m. in Albuquerque, the azure sky outside is hazy from a forest fire in the Gila Wilderness, and Ernie Montoya is already working at his store, Sunwest Silver.
Sitting in a crowded storeroom at a large wooden table, sorting through his inventory of Native silver-and-turquoise jewelry, Montoya prefers to fly under the radar, sought out by those in the know but otherwise an understated presence. Clad in a simple long-sleeved white tee and blue summer pants, he sets about his day. During the next couple of hours, the soft-spoken Montoya will touch base with employees, wholesale customers, and a smattering of the 150 or so Native silversmiths with whom he regularly collaborates.
With his quiet way and unobtrusive demeanor, Montoya might seem like an unlikely turquoise tycoon. In fact, he owns and manages a wholesale and retail operation that mines turquoise, cuts it, designs it, silversmiths it into jewelry, and sells it worldwide. Yet he insists, “Look at me. I’m just a plain guy.”
The Southwestern entrepreneur is on his cell phone most mornings by 6 a.m., fielding calls from India, Russia, and China for orders that can spike to five or six figures. But in his heart of hearts, Montoya is still the same turquoise dealer he was when he first got into the business, still attracted to the blue and green stones that he’s mined out of the West for four decades now. He keeps them in jars, spraying the stones with water to clean them and inhaling their earthy scent.
“These stones are like a spirit,” he says. “It’s hard to let them go. It’s like a feeling. It makes you feel good. And it brings good health. The Natives believe that. They’ve been cutting turquoise forever. Finally, turquoise is getting its recognition. Luck, protection — it makes you feel good. I sold one stone for $30,000 and I had to buy it back.”
Considered to have the largest private collection of North American turquoise in the world — “That’s what they say,” he acknowledges — Montoya owns five major turquoise mines in the West, including Carico Lake (his most precious), New Lander, Badger, and Falcon. He buys from all the other major mines, too, including Sleeping Beauty (known for its blue stones with scarce matrix) and Royston.
Montoya’s Sunwest Silver has retail stores in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, plus warehouses throughout Albuquerque. The operation has cutting rooms with stonecutters; machine shops; a line of jewelry for the national parks; 300 types of miniatures and stud earrings; 5,000 active styles of charms; bead makers; more than 300,000 rubber molds for casting production; Native pottery, including pieces by Maria Martinez; sculptures from the likes of Presley LaFountain; high-end Zuni and Navajo pawn jewelry from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, including squash blossom necklaces priced at $30,000 to $50,000; and high-quality strands of Sleeping Beauty beads, nugget beads, and button beads that run from $1,000 to $10,000.
And of course there are thousands of pieces of gorgeous handmade silver-and-turquoise jewelry. Many pieces begin with a rough sketch by Montoya; then an in-house designer finds the matching stones for it, and the piece is handmade by a Sunwest silversmith, about 98 percent of whom are Native American.
The famed Sunwest Silver vault is where wholesale customers buying for Garland’s, Evine, Teskey’s, and other stores browse, choosing among 5,000 styles of handmade turquoise earrings, along with thousands of turquoise, multicolor, beaded, and sterling bracelets, rings, and necklaces. “Everybody in Texas buys from me — about 30 stores,” Montoya says. “They love my jewelry. It’s big. Their style!”
Even more secluded is Montoya’s private collection room with more than 3,000 Mason jars of turquoise stones purchased from miners selling pouchfuls over the years, along with sugilite, amethyst, citrine, gaspeite, and other gemstones Montoya couldn’t resist. It’s a homey inner sanctum: just Montoya, a small scale, a Windex spray bottle now filled with water, and the stones. “Everybody who’s a goldsmith or silversmith who comes here, I blow them away,” Montoya says. “These guys tease me, ‘All roads lead to Ernie.’ They say I’m the turquoise king. I’m no king.”
The Albuquerque-raised Montoya has been working in the turquoise trade since the early ’70s, when he returned from service in Vietnam and loaned some money to a friend: “He comes back and says, ‘Ernie, I can’t pay you. But I’ve got all this Indian jewelry I can give you.’ So I took it. That’s how I started, peddling that jewelry.”
Now, after 45 years in the Native jewelry business, Montoya’s prized pieces include a tufa-cast sterling silver, turquoise, and coral concho belt by SWAIA award winner Rebecca Begay called The Story of My Life, priced at $50,000; an Ernest Begay high-grade Carico Lake squash blossom necklace with large Navajo-made silver beads; a collection of cuff bracelets with super-large, high-quality stones and intricate stamping, some by Ernest Begay and some by Arnold Blackgoat, each magnificent cuff selling for about $5,000; and inlay rings, pendants, and neckwear by Benson Manygoats.
One of Montoya’s biggest sales ever was to a Chinese group that plunked down $1.3 million, then later invited him to their gated estate in Las Vegas. “I used to have Chinese guys come in here spending $50,000 all the time,” he says. “But then they put a clamp onto how much they can spend out of the country.”
These days, Montoya observes the price of North American turquoise rising and speculates why: “There’s a huge demand for it and there’s not enough.” He recommends collectors buy only from sellers who can identify the artist who made the piece. Sunwest provides artist bios on its Native silversmiths, including Leonard Nez, whose work can be found in the Smithsonian; Matthew Charley, known for his highly textured surfaces; Arnold Blackgoat, who works with thick-gauged silver; Michael Calladitto, who does deeply stamped designs; and Joseph Coriz, who creates cut-out petroglyph storytelling designs.
As the day turns to late morning, silversmiths appear with jewelry that Montoya has ordered, and to buy stones. They hail from all over Arizona and New Mexico: Gallup, Albuquerque, the reservations. It’s becoming a who’s who of Indian Country in the Sunwest anteroom. Pony-tailed jeweler Larry Vasquez of Santa Fe, who’s of Aztec, Maya, and Mescalero Apache heritage, brings in a stunner of a $60,000 coral and turquoise necklace he just completed for a Montoya customer in Nebraska. “Ernie’s always got something different,” Vasquez says. “He challenges me. He’s a meek, mild, radical extremist. I used to travel all over the country looking for stones. Now I just come to Ernie. I only have to go 50 miles.”
From the August/September 2018 issue. All Photography: Studio Seven Productions.