I woke up and knew I was going to go to Old Mesilla. I knew there were shops there that specialize in Native American jewelry which translates to experts who know about Navajo silver and turquoise necklaces like mine. My excitement about what I will learn from these experts was rising as my bus ride brought me to my destination.
Old Mesilla is a beautiful historical town of specialty shops, galleries and restaurants located about a few miles west of Las Cruces and about a 10 – 15 minute ride on the Roadrunner Transit bus. I sat in my bus seat with anticipation as I gazed out the window at the views available to me along the route to the town of Old Mesilla. I had been there once before and fondly recalled the old plaza and the high elevation of the sidewalks built along the streets that crisscrossed around the centrally placed plaza. The vintage sidewalks are built much higher than your standard every day contemporary sidewalks. The fact that you have to step up about two feet to get onto the old brick and adobe walkways just adds to the charm of the town from my point of view.
I arrived at my destination on Avenida de Mesilla across the street from Calle de Santiago where the short route to the Old Town Plaza begins. As I got off the bus I could see the Town of Old Mesilla beckoning to me. The old adobe buildings that house the unique shops and restaurants speak of the memories that took place in this part of the historical Mesilla Valley. The original town site still has the flavor of the rich culture it has long been known for: The ancient influences of prehistoric life; The Spanish explorers, conquistadores and settlers all staking their claim in the new world; The Apache raiding parties trying to stop wagon trains and settlements from encroaching across their lands; The era of the Butterfield Stage Coach bringing the changes brought by the passengers and settlers who travelled the Trail; The civil war which impacted New Mexico for about eight months during 1861-1862; The wooly wild west of Billy the Kid (the Kid was on trial for his life at the Old Mesilla Courthouse and sentenced to hang); And Pancho Villa who went from beloved folk hero to a hunted desperado.
I think the website of the town of Mesilla says it best, ” The Town of Old Mesilla is part of a living history.” This living history is Mesilla’s story which unfolded as the Town became part of the Spanish Kingdom, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy, and last but not least the United States of America.
And now here I was in this mecca of Southwestern history ready to uncover the secrets of my Navajo silver and turquoise necklace. In my earlier post I shared the story of how my Navajo necklace came to me and that this vintage necklace I am a steward of whispers to me. This necklace is guiding me to find who the silversmith/artist is and where he or she is from. In other words, my vintage Navajo necklace wants me to discover its roots and where it came from.
I leisurely strolled down Calle de Santiago toward the Plaza searching for the shops my intuition and my necklace guided me to. The first shop I spied was La Zia Native Arts, located on Old Mesilla Plaza (across the street from the Plaza and near St. Albino Church). I walked through the door of La Zia Native Arts and discovered I had entered a wonder world of both vintage and contemporary Native American Jewelry. As I stepped into this silver and turquoise jewelry gallery I was immediately greeted by Katie and Beth, the well-informed, smiling keepers of this wonderland of Native American Arts. Katie and Beth were so friendly I just knew that I could share with them about my necklace. I began telling them the story of my necklace. I told them how it came into my life and how it is guiding me to find it’s roots. I took out the necklace from my purse to show it to Katie and Beth as I related my story to them.
I have found that when someone views my necklace In person and holds it in their hands then they too are captured by its charm and its intriguing design. Captured by the design of the silver leaves embracing the pendants, the beauty of the large turquoise cabochons, the exquisite stamped silver flower appliques and the entire overall look of the necklace.
Katie, Beth and I spent the next hour talking about my necklace and vintage Navajo jewelry as well as contemporary native artwork. They were both very helpful in giving me suggestions of who I could talk to and where I could go to gain more knowledge about my necklace. They suggested that I contact New Mexico State University here in Las Cruces and talk to someone in the Anthropology Department as well as contact the Native American Arts & Crafts Association which is located in Albuquerque. The suggestion was also made that I go to Silver Assets, another shop in Mesilla that specializes in Native American jewelry and most importantly to me, Navajo jewelry. I left La Zia Native Arts with so much more enthusiasm about finding the roots of my necklace thanks to Katie’s and Beth’s help and guidance. I already have a great deal of enthusiasm about my necklace and my visit with Katie and Beth just ratcheted the enthusiasm scale a bunch of notches. I left La Zia Native Arts with a promise to Katie and Beth that I would let them know what I learn along my Navajo necklace trail of discovery and headed toward the shop, Silver Assets.
I walked across the Plaza and headed down Calle de Santiago, the street where earlier in the afternoon I first started my exploration of Old Mesilla. I walked along the street taking in all the sights around me and turned my feet toward Silver Assets.
Silver Assets is located at 1948 Calle de Santiago just down, or up, depending if you face east or west, the street from the Plaza. Silver Assets is owned by Lori and Ken Dahlstrom and Ken was the friendly greeter I met as I stepped into their store. I was once more inside a Native American jewelry wonderland.
Every glass case I looked in held vintage as well as contemporary Native American silver jewelry inlaid or adorned in turquoise, topaz, amethyst, etc. Ken’s friendliness coaxed me into once again telling the story of my necklace. One more time I gently lifted my necklace out from the special fabric bag where it safely nestles in my purse and eagerly handed it into another set of appreciative hands. As Ken gently held my necklace in his hands he began to impart his vast knowledge of Navajo jewelry.
Ken told me the silver beads the pendants were strung on were Bench Beads. He told me bench beads are silver beads that are made in volume by a native silversmith who then in turn sells their finished product to another artist/silversmith, such as the one who designed and crafted my necklace. This bit of information was fascinating to me since I had always thought the artist who crafted my necklace had also made the silver beads. I now knew that was not the case. Apparently, the beads on my necklace were part of a large volume of beads that had been made en masse in a workshop by silversmiths working with machine made bead halves. In order to make the whole beads they solder the bead halves together by hand. The beads are partly machine made and partly hand made. Ken told me you can tell beads are bench beads from the soldering line that has a rough finish. In contrast, he said, to the beads that are 100% hand made by the jewelry designer/artist who cuts, stamps, daps, solders, files, drills, strings the beads and files and sands the soldering line to a smooth finish. As he held my necklace Ken pointed out to me the rough soldering lines on the beads. I could see that indeed the soldering lines on each of the beads were not smooth and when I ran my finger over the beads I could feel the rough line where the bead halves were put together to make the whole round bead.
Ken explained how the machine made bead halves were put together by the bench silversmith(s). These silversmiths specialty was making beads using the machine made half pieces while sitting at benches. Hence, the name bench beads. They mass produced these beads and then sold them to the native silversmiths who strung them on their finely crafted turquoise and silver necklaces the Navajo are known for.
I also learned that the design marks specific to the silver leaves that embrace each of the three turquoise cabochon pendants on my necklace are characteristic marks of the silversmith/artist who created my necklace. Ken told me these markings are like the signature of that Navajo silversmith. He said the dot stampings on each silver leaf are definitely unique to this silversmith who crafted my necklace. Ken also told me the designs of the silver flower appliques or rosettes soldered at the top of each pendant are also unique to the particular Navajo silversmith who designed and crafted my necklace and this uniqueness is also considered the signature of the artist. I was existatic, even though there is no hallmark on my necklace the unique design of the pendants could prove to be the missing link in finding WHO the silversmith/artist was who crafted my necklace.
Ken told me that the large turquoise cabochons in the necklace’s pendants are Turquoise Mountain turquoise. He told me that Turquoise Mountain is a mine located near Kingman, Arizona. Ken then pulled out a box he had that is full of turquoise pieces from various mines in New Mexico and Arizona. This sample box Ken has is an excellent tool in which to determine where a turquoise piece is mined from. Once I saw the sample turquoise from Turquoise Mountain it was very clear to me that the cabochons on the pendants of my necklace were Turquoise Mountain turquoise. The silver pyrite matrix of my turquoise was the same matrix in Ken’s Turquoise Mountain sample. I had thought my turquoise was Morenci turquoise. However, Ken’s sample box showed me clearly this was not the case. I looked at the Morenci turquoise samples Ken had and it was very clear that my turquoise could not be Morenci because my cabochons looked nothing like the Morenci samples.
Ken next focused on the crafting of my necklace. He told me the design of my necklace showed that it was crafted before 1965. Ken then turned my pendants over and pointed out their backings. He told me the backings were rolled silver and that this form of backing was commonly made up until 1965.
I then told Ken that I had wondered if my necklace was “old pawn.” Ken told me how jewelry that is “old pawn” is distinguished from jewelry that was not pawned. Apparently, each time a piece was pawned a hatch mark was scratched on the back. This was the system the trading post owners had for keeping track of pawned jewelry. Since there were no such markings on the backs of the pendants of my necklace it could not be “old pawn” jewelry.
Learning all of this about my necklace was like discovering a buried treasure right in my own backyard and Ken was definitely my treasure hunting guide. His knowledge was such a gift to me. I leaned up against the top of the glass case Ken had used to place his turquoise sample box on for us to peruse. While I stood there my mind was ticking trough all that I had learned from Ken. As more customers came in I knew that he now needed to devote his time to them and that my time with him had come to a close. I told him how much I appreciated his guidance and knowledge about Navajo silversmiths and how much he helped me to learn more about my own necklace. I left Lori and Ken Dahlstrom’s Silver Assets with a promise to keep him informed on the progress of the journey of my necklace.
I took my new found information about my necklace and left Silver Assets heading back to the heart of Old Mesilla, the Plaza. Now that my necklace journey search was over for the time being I could enjoy a leisure stroll around the Plaza and explore some of the other unique shops and eat some yummy treats. As I walked around I entered one beckoning shop after another. Though I was drawn to everything the shops had to offer, my mind was constantly ticking off what I had learned from Katie and Beth at La Zia Native Arts and from Ken at Silver Assets.
Soon it was time to catch the bus back to Las Cruces. I walked to the bus stop and as I waited for the bus to pick me up and transport me back home I began planning my next moves along the journey of discovering the roots of my Navajo necklace. I now had more information to point me in the next direction I was to go.
Next up for the journey of my Navajo necklace will be to contact the Anthropology Department of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and to contact the Indian Arts and Crafts Association located in Albuquerque. After all, I now knew the signature of the silversmith/artist who crafted my necklace. According to Ken Dahlstrom of Silver Assets the entire design of my necklace was like the silversmith’s signature. With this information I wondered how hard will it now be to learn who crafted my necklace.