One look at the elaborate turquoise bracelets, engraved silver belt buckles and ornate squash blossom necklaces featured in “Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family,” and it’s clear that by bypassing accounting, Mr. Yazzie is giving the Navajo nation a much richer gift. The exhibition until early 2016 shows about 330 pieces of jewelry made by 15 members of the Yazzie family, with a focus on work by Lee and his younger brother Raymond.
One morning last month, Lee Yazzie — the Navajo jeweler whose life’s work is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan — reflected on the road not taken.
“I wanted to be an accountant,” Mr. Yazzie, 68, said during a phone call from his home in Gallup, N.M. “My ambition was to straighten out the books of the Navajo tribe in Window Rock, Arizona.”
Forced to drop out of college after his parents divorced in 1969, Lee Yazzie turned to the family tradition of silversmithing to make ends meet. He soon earned a reputation for translating traditional Navajo motifs such as the quadrant division of space into refined silver pieces accented with top-quality American turquoise — jewels that embodied the Navajo concept of hózhó, an idealized state of beauty, balance and harmony.
A similar respect for hózhó characterizes Raymond Yazzie’s work, but the younger brother “works from color,” said the exhibition’s curator, Lois Sherr Dubin. “He is one of the finest lapidary artists in the world.”
A master of inlay — a technique that involves cutting gemstones to fit artfully within metal channels — Raymond Yazzie creates intricate puzzles using gems such as coral, opal and lapis lazuli embedded in turquoise. An intricate “Blessings” cuff made in 2003, for example, features rare Water Web Kingman turquoise inlaid with 485 gems in an abstract depiction of corn, stars, feather patterns and the spirit beings known as kachinas. It is an homage to the paintings of the Hopi artist Dan Namingha.
“It’s a kind of visual communication system that also happens to be quite beautiful, and not just at a surface level,” Ms. Dubin said. “There are so many layers and depths of information.”
Turquoise becoming art
It’s not the first time Native American jewelers have earned so much attention on the world stage. After World War II, a trio of pioneering craftsmen — Kenneth Begay, considered the father of modern Navajo jewelry, and the boundary-breaking Hopi jewelers Preston Monongye and Charles Loloma — helped create a new identity for Native American design that reflected tradition and modernity.
“They brought color and exotic stones and got respectful prices paid for their work,” Ms. Dubin said. “They raised Native American jewelry from trinkets to art.”
Plenty of contemporary jewelers have fallen under their influence.
“Loloma inspired some of my earliest work,” said the New York-based jewelry designer Pamela Love. “You’d never be able to draw the correlation, but you extrapolate a technique or a stone.”
Popularized by Turkish traders, embraced by Native Americans and now mined extensively by the Chinese, turquoise varies so widely in color and form that many American Indians say no two stones are alike.
Ms. Love recalled growing up in Florida feeling “sea-locked” until about a decade ago, when, during a road trip, she found her spiritual home in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico.
In the years since, Ms. Love has incorporated the iconography of the Southwest — including feathers, medicine wheels, snakes and arrowheads — into her designs. She now is creating a fall collection with turquoise, called “Sueño,” or “Dream,” that she describes as “part Frida Kahlo, part Johnny Cash.”
“What’s special about Native American culture is that it does a beautiful job of making the connection to the environment and respect for how we got here, in a really poetic way,” Ms. Love said.
Turquoise In others’ work
That ethos resonates with Melissa Joy Manning, a Berkeley, Calif.-based designer who describes herself as besotted with tribal culture and who has, as a byproduct, made a habit of scouring the annual gem shows in Tucson for examples of American turquoise. “I’m fascinated by the Native American idea that no two stones are alike,” she said.
Elsewhere, the New York designer David Yurman last year began to outsource a portion of his production to a workshop in Santa Fe, N.M., where local artisans do the inlay work that distinguishes his brand’s new “Frontier” collection of turquoise and silver belt buckles, woven bracelets and rings.
In Los Angeles, the designers Jacquie Aiche and Irene Neuwirth both said they had been seduced by Native American style. In April, Ms. Aiche debuted a limited collection of leather bolo ties anchored by a crescent-shaped pendant not unlike the traditional Navajo naja symbol, while Ms. Neuwirth showed a long rainbow-colored strand of gemstones whose silhouette recalls a luxe version of the naja, or squash blossom necklace.
Meanwhile, Lee and Raymond Yazzie still make one-of-a-kind jewels, though serious buyers, often forced to compete with hordes of devoted collectors in Japan, may have to wait as long as three years for a Yazzie original.
“This is not an industrial production; this is one person’s art,” said Lloyd Van Horn, a Houston-based collector who loaned a silver and turquoise bolo tie designed by Raymond Yazzie to the “Glittering World” exhibition. “Every one of those pieces is special to them, and they should be special to those of us lucky enough to own one.”