Featured Blog Post

What is a Hallmark?

Hallmarks identify the jewelry maker. Many times they are just simple letter stamps. They are not something new, but can be traced back to the 4th Century. Famous American metal smiths used them before we became a country. Paul Revere who warned the Colonial militia “the British are coming” during the American Revolution used a hallmark on his handmade silver pieces in the 1700s.>

Carl Gorman: Artist & Navajo Statesman

Saturday, June 16, 2018 12:37 PM

Carl Gorman: Artist & Navajo Statesman

Early in life Carl Gorman did well as a bootlegger on the Reservation.  Then he was one of the few native traders. His father Nelson Gorman had a post near Chinle.  Carl’s language skills were obvious—during the infamous stock reduction, he was used as a Navajo translator for the government—and he was one of the first Code Talkers taken.  Born in 1907, he was older than most of the guys—he lied about his age to enlist—but he was needed to craft the original code.  I barely knew what a Code Talker was.

In the summer of 1971 I was working for the Duke Oral History Project under C. Gregory Crampton at the University of Utah.  I got a call from him saying, “Get your behind over to the Navajo Museum and take your tape recorder and plenty of blank tape.”  Over a three day period I taped a bunch of these amazing men. The only person I know who got multiple tapes was Carl Gorman.  After that I crossed paths with this amazing man rather often and I believe I can call him a friend.Donkeys by Carl Gorman

One of Carl’s stories that upset a lot of White folks was about his treatment while attending primary school.  For a personality like Gorman’s it was inevitable he would get in trouble.  He finished his education at the Albuquerque Indian School, and the policies there were not too different that what he had seen already.  Until 1970 the official BIA stand was to make little Christian White Men out of the kids. Carl’s diploma said he was “A competent farmer.”  At least he got to play football.

After the war Carl took advantage of the GI Bill to further his education on his own terms for once.  He had been drawing all his life, but now he got into the Otis Art Institute.   During that time he matured, both as an artist and as a genuine character.  At that time Art became his fortune.  For years he signed his work with his clan name, Kin-ya-onnie-beyeh.

He started a Navaho Club in Southern California, but he realized he could reach more of his people back on the Reservation.  In 1964, not long before I met him the first time, he became director of the Navajo Arts & Crafts Guild.

Apache Ghan Dancers by Carl Gorman

In the late Sixties things started to change for Indian tribes as they got more autonomy from the government and project money like the Office of Navajo Education Opportunity.  He had two projects during this time that were of great importance.  He created a travelling exhibit of traditional Navajo history with several original paintings.  He organized an effort to tape record as many Hatathli—medicine men—as possible before all their knowledge passed into the darkness.

Gorman, like many Indian artists, could work in a variety of mediums.

Acrylics, drawings, watercolors and even ceramics were on his menu.   He was also a teacher.  He had a gig with U C Davis for several years.  It is hard to think of things Carl Gorman didn’t do.  I believe it is fair to say that his greatest accomplishment was the help he gave the Navajo people.  For years he signed his work with his clan name, Kin-ya-onnie-beyeh.

When Carl Gorman died in Gallup at the age of 90, the New York Times ran a generous obituary.  In the first sentence the writer says:  “Carl Gorman, a gentle Navajo artist who talked his way valiantly through some of the fiercest fighting of World War II…” had passed away.  The writer almost certainly did not realize how appropriate his statement was.  He was talking about the Navajo code that was never broken, not the silver-tongued storyteller.

I will never forget Carl Gorman the raconteur, teller of tales, Gorman the artist, the man who advanced the Navajo tribe in so many ways.

A young Carl Gorman

Stampede Strings & Bolo Ties

Thursday, May 24, 2018 12:15 PM

Stampede Strings & Bolo Ties

       The bolo tie has nothing to do with the Argentine throwing weapon that consists of three round stones tied together with leather thongs. With that thing around your neck you were in trouble.  It was also not invented by some fellow in Arizona with a good imagination in 1940 something.  In fact, the bolo tie has been around in some form for many years.

         For white consumption the original form was known as a stampede string.  In the 1850’s inmates in Deer Lodge Prison were braiding them out of horsehair.  It was time consuming, which was probably the idea.  The cord went around the crown of the hat and though the hat with two small holes.  The hanging cords were joined together with a slider, also made of hair.  The tips were two large fluffy tufts of hair hanging from the cord ends.

         In a stampede or a tornado the cord was snugged up under the chin with the slider.  It might not keep the hat on your head, but it did keep the darned thing on your person.  A similar cord—gold—went around the brim of the hat of a cavalry officer.


         The next development was also part of the cowboy’s dress.  The scarf—bandana, neckerchief and 17 others, some not fit to print—was a common item of dress.  It was pulled up over the face when riding drag, eating the dust of the herd.  Or robbing a bank if that was your thing.  The tie slide is faster to slip off.

         The Zuni version was pretty early.  Sheep vertebrae have a hole the right size for the purpose.  The earliest ones were painted, then came inlay, then beadwork.   Mid century Conrad Lessarly was selling a lot of them to the Boy Scouts.  Unfortunately they stimulated the Colorado Scouts to cobble up their own version of Zuni dances.


During the Thirties and Forties C. G Wallace encouraged the ladies of Zuni to switch from pottery—hard to ship—to beadwork.  He said once he took in as many as 500 a day.  The 1940 Census showed nearly 200 women claiming occupation—beadwork.  Roger Tsabetsaye told me he took several hundred of the cow slides to the United Nations and sold out.THESE_ARE_TYPICAL_OF_THE_MODERN_TIE_SLIDES

 It was natural to apply the sliding neckwear idea to jewelry.  There are many forms of homemade backs to hold the cords in place. Some of the bolo backs are very original.

         Many people think the ties can be dated by the by the common Bennet closer, but it really only dates the Bennet.  Knowing that Anglos like old, or the appearance of old, some makers today still use one of the old styles.  It was also sometimes difficult to drop in to the jeweler’s supply store.

         Probably the most common back was the three rings.  Two up top to separate the cords, a larger one below to clasp the cords.  Another was the M shape.  Cords went through the high spot at the sides, the middle of the M could be adjusted for tension.  I have seen a dozen other configurations.

         The tips can be cheap ones from a supply place or elaborate creations in their own right.  Tom Weahkee went all out on his.  They are art in and of themselves.  The function of the tips is to keep the cord from unraveling.   They are called aglets—the same as shoelace tips.


         Jack Mahkee got an idea from the old string ties and braided his own heavier cord with unusual tips.  He split a piece of leather into two lengths, and then braided them without cutting the strap.  The smaller eagles below are a great touch.

         Frank Vacit was amazingly creative and created a pair with turquoise set into the silver—true inlay.  The tips are crushed but there appears to be stamens in the blossoms.  I have only seen this on one other and it must have been very time consuming.



0 Comment Posted in Information

The Legend of C.G. Wallace

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 7:05 PM

The Legend of C.G. Wallace


Most of the public information dealing with C. G. Wallace seems to date from the article by Mike Tharp that appeared in the August 1974 issue of Arizona Highways.  The problem with that piece is that Wallace himself was the only source for the information there.  In the second paragraph Tharp states authoritatively, “During a colorful career that began in 1918, he established a rapport with the Zuni and Navajo achieved by few other white men.”  He adds the pronouncement, “An intensely private man, Mr. Wallace has repeatedly refused to allow publicity about his accomplishments.” 

         In truth, the legend of Charles Garrett Wallace, Zuni trader par excellence, was largely of his own creation.  While Wallace didn’t write about his major accomplishments, he bragged to anyone who would listen.  Only Wallace himself substantiates most of his claims, always in conversation with people who had only his interests at heart.

         Perhaps the most insulting and outrageous claim comes from Dexter Cerillo in 2008 writing “Leekya Deyuse…became famous under Wallace’s tutelage for his stylized rounded animal carvings that found their way into many jewelry forms.” Wallace may claim to have invented modern Zuni jewelry, but he can’t claim fetishes

It is a sad fact that Wallace was the most universally disliked individual in the history of White/Zuni relations.  Since I started my history of Zuni jewelry I have discovered that it is not possible to trust him about much of anything he said.

         Even the dates of his tenure in the village have been regularly misstated.  In Zuni: A Village of Silversmiths the authors write, “When the trader C. G. Wallace set up business in the pueblo in 1917, he said there were only five Zuni silversmiths there.” 

Wallace didn’t arrive in Zuni until late 1919 and for the next ten years he was merely a clerk for Charles Kelsey [the Ilfeld Co. was the actual owner, but Kelsey ran it], which gives the lie to quite a number of his pronouncements and claims.  There were certainly more than five smiths in Zuni by that time, and a growing market was being established for their work.  In 1920 there were fewer than 2,000 Zunis.

His friend Dale Stewart King (Indian Silver Vol Two, 1976) has real difficulty with Wallace’s dates, which are usually at odds with other “experts.”   One I particularly enjoy had to do with some writers claiming the first Zuni inlay was done in 1935.  Wallace complained to King, “I had sold more than a million dollars worth of it before then.”  King adds, “He also told me he had started Zunis inlaying silver before 1920. There’s that pesky date again. King addresses Wallace’s faulty dates half a dozen times before saying, “Mr. Wallace’s dates...pose some problems. I surely am not about to doubt his memory.”  Somebody should have.

It also seems he is the source of Dan Simplicio’s childhood jewelry making, telling King that Dideos “…helped to encouraged Dan to become a good craftsman. He taught Dan to make silver coins and to make leaves of different sizes.  This was in the middle ‘20’s.” [sic]  Simplicio was born in 1917 which would make him eight years old at that time.

Another ridiculous claim he made was his involvement in the invention of needlepoint and cluster.  He claimed when turquoise got scarce he took boxes of scrap and doled them out to his best artists, who then made cluster pieces.  This is totally impossible unless matching the stones didn’t matter. I told Bryant Waatsa about this claim and he snorted.

Joe Tanner told me once that when he got in a shipment of stone he would pick it for hours to find matching colors.  When Lee and Mary Weebothe got the rock they would pick again, and give half of it back.

One of the things that makes it appear he was an Indian trader earlier than he was is the application for a license to trade in 1920.  It was not a license to run a business, but merely to work in the Kelsey trading post.  They had to get such a clearance for every employee, even the Indians.

Wallace was very critical of the Zunis, saying they were poor (15 beds in the entire pueblo, for example) and lazy, sleeping and gambling their days away. Quoted by Tharp, he said, “When I came to Zuni they gambled, they played, and they didn’t do much work at all.” 

Debora Slaney wrote of Wallace, “During that first year, Wallace set out to become acquainted with the village of Zuni”…He “was also known as Mujugi (Night Owl) for his tendency to do business with jewelers in the evening.”  She quoted C. G. as her source for the claim: “As soon as I arrived in Zuni, I made it a point to get acquainted…As soon as we closed the Trading Post, I would select certain sections of the Village, and go visiting—“   

It is a stretch to believe that a clerk, fresh off the train, would be doing business directly with the people at all.  It is true the Zunis began to call him “Owl Man” but for very different reasons than he said.   Many Zunis have told me over the years that Wallace was called “Owl” because he prowled the streets in the middle of the night, looking for houses where no one was home, or slipping into kivas to see if there was anything valuable to take.  His brother Robert was called “Gomeh” which means crybaby, or whiner.

When various writers say Wallace was a consummate trader by 1919, they are missing the fact that he arrived in Zuni in October of that year.  He was certainly a fast study.

Silver: Coin, German & Otherwise

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 6:50 PM

Silver: Coin, German & Otherwise

        Up front, we are talking about three hundredths of one percent between sterling and coin.

         In her 1936 pamphlet on Navajo silver, Margery Bedinger gives three lengthy paragraphs—half a page—to explaining the difference between sterling silver and coin silver.  She states, “This difference is too small to greatly affect the properties of the alloy...” (1936:15) Having said that, she spends two and a half more paragraphs discussing the two different alloys.  But she asserts that the difference is “…a fact that becomes significant when one is trying to date an old piece of jewelry, for the two sorts of money have different colors and take on a different luster when made up and so can easily be distinguished by the expert.” (1936:16)

         John Adair, writing just a few years later, claims that the actual working of the silver, like annealing, will affect color.  He concludes, “Therefore, individual pieces can never be dated accurately on the basis of color.” (1944:29)

Edison Sandy Smith

        It is true, however, that silver and nickel oxidize differently.  Nickel turns skin green, silver turns black, and nickel seems to oxidize faster.  But immediately after buffing it is difficult to tell them apart.  I use the sound method—nickel has a tinny sound when dropped on a glass display case.

Most writers simply add to the confusion:  Mexican pesos were supposedly purer silver and thus easier to work. According to coin dealers this is not true:  Coin silver was almost the same in both countries (U.S. .900, Mexico .903) until the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when Mexican coins gradually contained less and less precious metal.  It is also known that Navajo smiths commonly added a few pennies to melted silver to stretch it out a little, which would turn sterling into coin silver or worse. Many dealers claim they can tell coin silver from sterling at a glance, but considering the diverse practices, and very small difference in purity of various coinages, this seems very unlikely.

Most people can’t tell nickel from silver and don’t know that German silver contains no silver at all.  None.   Nor does the deceptively named Nickel silver.  No silver.  

0 Comment Posted in Information

Frank & Elizabeth Vacit

Thursday, May 3, 2018 5:56 PM

Frank & Elizabeth Vacit

        In the 1940 Federal census Frank Vacit (25) was living in the household of Old Man Leekya, married to his eldest daughter Elizabeth (21).   Leekya was the only member of the family listed as a silversmith.  Frank gave his occupation as “unpaid family farm worker” and his income for the year $180.  But under “other income” he checked “yes”.  There is no explanation.

         In the famous C. G. Wallace sale catalogue from 1975 there are only a couple of unremarkable pieces attributed to Frank.  This is likely because of the Vacit’s friendship with Shirley and Pat Kelsey.   At one time Shirley said they would sit at the kitchen table in the wee hours, discussing designs.  One of the most eccentric of these is the goblet and serving tray that was part of the Druckman collection.  The silver tubing used for the cups came from the Newcomb friend Gouverneur Morris.


Elizabeth Leekya Vacit never gets billing for the jewelry they made together, which is odd considering her family connection. Shirley Newcomb Kelsey knew them well and took a number of photos of them working at the same bench.  She said that the couple always worked together. Many wives got no credit.

         They made so many remarkable pieces it is hard to choose which ones to spotlight.  One of Shirley’s photos shows Frank holding a fancy inlaid bit.  This magnificent piece is pictured in color in the book,  Bridles of the Americas Vol I.  The Vacits probably used ancient pottery designs more than anyone else.

         Frank liked to work outside the box.  To make overlay inlay the artist has to saw out the design from a plate of silver.  Tiny holes are drilled to accommodate the saw blade.  Usually those holes are cut out with the design.  One buckle leaves the holes visible with an almost invisible trail to the cutout.


       Most dealers believe they can tell a Vacit piece at a glance, and that is probably more true than for any other Zuni jeweler.  Though they never repeat the exact same designs, unlike lesser artists, the Vacit stonework is striking.  They managed to get the reddest coral and the bluest turquoise of anyone, but it is a mystery where it came from.

         The very style is distinctive.  Not the designs, but the work itself.  They did some of the most elaborate inlay ever.  There is a chanelwork bow guard with two eagles that illustrates the point.  No other artist did such dazzling work.

0 Comment Posted in Information

16 - 20 of 273


enter your email below & receive

15% OFF

your next order, as well as exclusive news, offers and discounts directly to your inbox.

No, thank you