Matthew Charley takes the traditional art of Navajo jewelry to a contemporary new high.
Matthew Charley can be a hard man to get ahold of. Cell phone service is sketchy to nonexistent on the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico where he currently lives. But when he does connect, Charley is generous in conversation about his jewelry-making and humble about the buzz and demand for his high-quality Navajo statement pieces.
“I’m currently working on a squash blossom necklace with Royston turquoise and a traditional Navajo bow-guard bracelet,” says the 26-year-old, conducting the interview not in his New Mexico studio but at almost 10,000 feet, on top of Eagle Peak in the Tularosa Mountains in the Gila National Forest.
Born in the small town of Gallup, New Mexico, which borders the southeastern region of the Navajo reservation, Charley has been creating jewelry since the age of 15. “I started doing small silversmithing tasks for my father, Lee Charley, and eventually I started creating items on my own,” he says. “I grew up amongst some very talented and influential metalsmiths who also happened to be my father and uncles. Seeing the process in my daily life as a youth was a huge influence on my creativity. When I was about 20 and started traveling to different cities to sell my work, I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
We talked with Charley about the joys of turquoise, the tricky thing about silversmithing, and the pride of carrying on Diné tradition.
Cowboys & Indians: What’s the history of jewelry-making in your family?
Matthew Charley: Making jewelry goes back four generations in my family. My great-grandfather traded and created some pieces. My father and uncles are well-established artists. The art runs in the family.
C&I: What interests you about turquoise?
Charley: What’s not to love about turquoise? There’s plenty of variety when it comes to the stone: different colors, types, and rarity. From the lime green Carico Lake turquoise to the deep blues of Bisbee and even the dark greens of Royston turquoise — I love it all.
C&I: How do you go about picking stones?
Charley: Choosing the stone is usually the first step in the creative process. Sometimes I’ll purchase the stone just because of its uniqueness without knowing what I’m going to create with it. I have had stones that’ve been in my collection for years until I finally figure out what to make of them. I only work with natural turquoise, and most of the time it’s the high-grade stuff. It is, however, becoming more difficult to find the best stones. Luckily I have some good friends with the best turquoise collections, like Ernie Montoya of Sunwest Silver. Ernie has vaults and cases filled with the best. It’s like turquoise heaven when he allows me to pick through the collection. Just know that each piece of jewelry I create is a one-of-a-kind piece because every stone is different.
C&I: What are the best and most challenging aspects of silversmithing?
Charley: The best part about silversmithing is the people I get to meet and the eventual relationships and friendships created. I’ve met so many wonderful individuals throughout the years — people that I would’ve never met if I wasn’t a silversmith. The most challenging part of silversmithing is the long hours that are required to create each piece. The more complex a design, the more time it requires. The people who know my work have seen the details in each design.
C&I: How do you come up with your designs?
Charley: I like to say that the foundation of all my work is the traditional Navajo style of jewelry from the classic period (ca. 1850 – 1900). I just add a modern twist to it without straying too far in order to keep the pieces timeless. I’m also inspired by the natural textures in my homeland as well as the different types of architecture I see along my travels. My surroundings also influence my designs. The story and culture of my people (Diné) are what ultimately inspire me to carry on this art. I believe that each piece I make carries the history of my people along with it.
C&I: What pieces do you yourself wear?
Charley: Occasionally I’ll wear bracelets that I’ve made for myself, but they always end up finding new homes; sometimes I’ll gift them to friends or they get purchased. I always wear a ring and ranger buckle my father gifted to me — they’re my favorite pieces to wear. Oh, and my brushed-finish hatband that I always have on my custom hat from O’Farrell Hat Company in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
C&I: What pieces are you most proud of, and what kind of work went into them?
Charley: I’m always proud of every piece that I create, but a few special pieces come to mind. I made a concho belt that I hand-stamped over 12,000 times. It was a sterling concho belt with my signature concentric stamp work. My first-ever gold cuff is up there as well; it was a large solid 18-karat gold cuff with sizable natural Egyptian turquoise. It was always a goal of mine to start working with gold, and when I finally had the resources to do so I was excited. Next would be a large squash blossom necklace that I entered in the 2019 Santa Fe Indian Market. This necklace featured over 600 carats of Sleeping Beauty turquoise and was in the official fashion show of the 2019 Indian Market and featured in Vogue magazine. I still have it in my possession. I figured I’d hold onto it for a while — definitely one of my favorites.
C&I: We learned about you from Sam Abweh of Samsville in Santa Fe.
Charley: I met Sam for the first time when I was a teen. My late uncle, Kirk Smith, who was an amazing artist, introduced me to Sam. Sam was a fan and knew my work long before he met me, and he was ecstatic when he finally got to put a face to the work. We’ve been good friends ever since. He is amazing at what he does; his gallery and all of the guys there are some of the best people I know. You can always find some of the latest and greatest of my work at his galleries.
C&I: What makes you happy, and what kinds of things do you do when you’re not at your jewelry bench?
Charley: [Happiness is] living a good life and being able to spoil my sisters. I like the outdoors, so when I’m not working, I’m usually doing some hiking, fishing, or camping. I also love spending time with my family — my mother, father, and younger sisters. We’re always doing something fun and exciting.
C&I: What is your maker’s mark/hallmark? Any meaning behind it?
Charley: My earliest work was only signed with my initials, MC, but I was told by other artists that I needed a hallmark that was distinct. So now I sign all of my work with my signature “Matthew Charley” stamp.
C&I: What have been some of the high points of your career so far?
Charley: A few high points in my career have been winning ribbons at the Santa Fe Indian Market — and being featured in Cowboys & Indians magazine, of course.
C&I: Any famous people who wear your stuff whose names you are at liberty to drop?
Charley: Well, I’m not too sure about name-dropping, but I’ve created items for a couple of actors and prominent figures on the rodeo circuit.
C&I: Is there a dream project you’d like to make someday?
Charley: A dream project of mine would be to create a whole set in 18-karat gold, which would be a squash blossom, bracelets, rings, and earrings. I’m excited because I know it’s just a matter of time before it becomes a reality.
C&I: Any parting words?
Charley: I do want to thank all the people who helped me and contributed to my growth as an artist and a human being. I also want to thank C&I magazine for this great opportunity. Oh, yes, as a kid I would often see issues of C&I — the jewelry and fashion — so it’s really amazing to be featured and meet the photographers behind it all, Shelle and Michael Neese, and everyone else. Thank you!
Find Matthew Charley online at matthewcharley.com
Photography: Courtesy Studio Seven Productions
From our January 2020 issue.