Drawn to Beauty

Article excerpt

A New Mexico collection pays homage to Native American jewelry

An heiress to the Standard oil fortune, Millicent H. Rogers was a prominent arts patron well known for her impeccable style and taste. Rogers arrived in Taos, NM, in 1947. Between then and 1953, when she died suddenly of a stroke at age 50, she amassed an extensive collection of southwestern Indian jewelry. In 1956 Rogers' son, Paul Peralta-Ramos, and his grandmother, Mary Benjamin Rogers, established a museum to showcase the collection, which today also includes contemporary Native American jewelry, pottery, textiles, and baskets added after Millicent Rogers1 death. What follows is an excerpt from Fine Indian Jewelry of the Southwest: The Millicent Rogers Museum Collection by Shelby J. Tisdale. The book was published in May by the Museum of New Mexico Press and traces the history of Indian jewelry from prehistory to the present.

DRAWN TO THE BEAUTY OF THE TAOS LANDSCAPE, Millicent Rogers became particularly fascinated with tlie simplicity and warmth of its esoteric fcliality of life. The more time she spent in Taos, the more she cherished PIC land and the people. In thinking of his mother's last years in New Mexico, Millicent's son Arturo recalled that "she became fascinated by the meaning of the place, and ended up finding the meaning of her own life." In this environment and cultural milieu, she assembled a stellar collection of Native American jewelry and continued to design and create her own.

One of the highlights of the Millicent Rogers Museum's jewelry collection is a spectacular turquoise necklace composed of almost three hundred individually polished turquoise tabs made by Zuni jewelry artist Leekya Deyuse. This one-of-a-kind necklace was purchased at the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial in 1947 when Millicent was accompanied by her good friend and collecting companion John Joseph.

The bulk of the Millicent Rogers collection dates to what is known as the Transitional Period of 1900-1950, which saw the commercialization of southwest Indian jewelry and the development of recognizable tribal styles. Through the early twentieth century, silver jewelry gradually diverged into clearly recognizable modern-day styles associated with the Navajo and Zuni, Hopi, and Rio Grande Pueblos. The Navajo, for example, preferred larger stones set in individual bezels or single rows of turquoise separated by simple decorative elements such as small balls of silver known as "raindrops." An even balance between turquoise and silver in which the design generally moves out from a central stone is a characteristic of Navajo jewelry.

On the other hand, the Zuni tilted the balance in favor of turquoise. For the Zuni, silver is simply the showcase for fine lapidary work. From the 1920s onward many Zuni pieces focused attention on the stones rather than the setting. Multiple settings of carefully cut and matched stones arranged in flowerlike clusters or orderly rows remain the hallmark of Zuni design. The Zuni style of setting many small pieces of turquoise in clusters or in rows had the effect of delicacy and fragmentation. This was quite different from the sculptural manner and larger sets characteristic of Navajo work.

By the early 1930s squash blossom necklaces were transformed by the Navajo to include two strands of smaller beads, held together with squash blossom beads on oblong shanks, and double squash blossoms. This more stable form prevented the squash blossom beads from Hopping around and rotating inward, and it also provided a firmer base to support heavier squash blossom beads, particularly those set with turquoise. The Zuni rarely make plain beads, and the squash blossom necklaces are lighter, smaller, and studded with stones.

The Zuni also developed a technique of setting a decorative pattern of stones into silver referred to as channel inlay. Channel inlay consists of gluing precut stones into small cloisonnes of silver that have been soldered perpendicular to the base, and then grinding the stones until they are flush with the surface. …