I recently talked to writer and jewelry collector Adelita Sandoval for her new blog Bangles, Baubles, Beads, about my shop, romaarellano.com and what drew me to selling jewelry. We covered a gamut of topics, from types of jewelry, favorite artists, and why I'm so obsessed with finding the best old and new jewelry possible. You can read the interview on her blog here, and below is the interview itself.
Have you always been a jewelry lover?
I have been in love with jewelry since I was a little girl and would touch all the jewelry on my grandma’s arms and hands. She wore rings on just about every finger, and a stack of bracelets. All Native American, and she had a preference for Zuni Pueblo cluster jewelry. All natural turquoise, which I would rub like worry stones. Everything she wore was 1940s or earlier, some traded for meat, as my grandparents ran a ranch in Cimarron, NM, and raised cattle, sheep, rabbits, pigs. My grandma’s jewelry would have been the type that one may have seen in a museum, it was so old and beautiful. When my grandparents died, they left everything to their oldest son (in the Spanish tradition). When my uncle died–he had a stroke and while having it, he scribbled down his will on a yellow legal pad, with the writing literally going off the page at the end–he made my parents the executors of the will and he left all the jewelry to an aunt with a gambling addiction. My parents were honored by their role, whereas I always thought, What? You didn’t get anything??? The jewelry got pawned for cigarette and gambling money. And honestly, I’ve been searching for Grandma’s jewelry ever since.
What is your favorite type of jewelry and why?
Native American and Mexican jewelry. Among Native American jewelry, I have a huge fondness for Santo Domingo Pueblo. The Santo Domingo were the earliest jewelry makers in the Southwest, working mainly with shell and stone inlay. There was no silver until the Spanish brought it to this part of the world, yet the Santo Domingo were making heishi beads (“heishi” is the Kewa word for shell, although it eventually came to mean any type of small bead, including those made of turquoise and other stone). They were doing mosaic inlays with stones found locally and shells traded with indigenous peoples living near oceans and seas. When the Spanish came into what is now Mexico and up via the Camino Real, they brought silver coins, and tools for silversmithing. People may not realize but before New Mexico was part of the United States, silversmithing was introduced to Mexicans and Navajos, who learned side by side. That is why we see similar styles in Mexican and Navajo jewelry. Jewelry from Old and New Mexico is not just beautiful; it is about a shared history. It’s a bloody history, a history of conquest. But like the people who emerged from that history–myself and my ancestors–the jewelry is a silver lining in an otherwise cruel legacy.
How did you start your business selling jewelry?
I bought my first old piece of silver–it was a compote, not jewelry–when I was still a girl, at an antique store in Cimarron. I grew up, got a Masters degree in Latin American Studies, and started working for UNM’s Latin American Institute, and by then had a pretty nice collection of folk art. During work trips, I would go to the Zocalo in Mexico City and buy old Matilde de Poulat (d.) or Carmen Beckmann silver jewelry from vendors on the plaza. Or láminas (retablos painted on old metal) from antique stores in Mexico. Once I carried home on the plane a half-cock-half-bull pottery statue made by Mexican master ceramicist Gerardo Ortega. Those were the days when you could bring almost anything on a plane. And I continued to travel throughout my adult life, going all over the world, and each place I went to, I sought out the open air markets selling old stuff. I bought and bought. Not to mention my husband and I inherited a lot of wonderful pieces of furniture from his grandparents and parents. So fast forward to about six years ago, and the first of my friends’ parents died, and my friend was left with sorting out her parents’ treasures. It hit me, My kids don’t want all my stuff! Or they’ll sell it all off for 50 cents at a garage sale after I die! I had an Etsy store where I had briefly sold jewelry and art made by me, so I decided to re-open it but to start selling off my collection of cool old things. It’s not just jewelry, but also folk art, home decor, purses, boots–I call it the love child of Frida, Diego, Georgia, and Mabel. Once I sold the items from my own collection that I wanted to sell, I started buying for the purpose of selling.
How do you decide what to pick to sell?
The theme of my store helps key in on what I want to sell. I come across a lot of beautiful treasures, and I generally trust my eye in guiding what to buy. But if I am having a hard time passing up a gorgeous Cuisinart enamel pan from France, for example, which would sell for a lot on eBay, I just think, does it fit the vibe of MY shop? Is it Old Mexico, New Mexico, Frida inspired, something you’d find at Ghost Ranch or at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House? I do have a lot of Asian pieces, tribal jewelry, estate jewelry…so I’m not exclusively about the store theme. But I would say 80% of what I sell belongs to a certain place and time.
Do you exclusively sell Native American jewelry?
No. I have tribal, estate, and Mexican jewelry sections in my online shop. Trade beads can be Native American, African, Mexican… like chachal necklaces from Chiapas and Guatemala. You’ll see those same trade beads, which were Venetian (and sometimes other European) and traded in all the areas where the Europeans entered. I love jewelry from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, which have deep and vibrant jewelry-making legacies. (Santo Domingo master artist Tony Aguilar Sr. (d.) was stationed in Iran during ww2 and studied Persian jewelry techniques; he used a lot of brass and other metals for his jewelry based on that influence.) There are so many masterful jewelry cultures. The Nagaland peoples, have you ever seen the shield necklaces worn by the Konyak Naga? Just amazing. Honestly, my head can’t hold what I have learned over the years, and I am sure someone who has expertise in any one area where I have just enough knowledge to make me dangerous would roll their eyes at how little I know about some of the cultures and their jewelry, because there is too much to hold in one’s head.
Why do you think people love turquoise so much?
Natural turquoise is magic. It has a luminescence from within. If you wear natural turquoise at dusk or during those witching hours, it appears to glow. It is a healing gemstone, revered by peoples for centuries. And on a pragmatic level, it looks great on any skin tone. Then there is the nostalgia. Many others are like me, with grandmas and grandpas and uncles and aunts and parents who wore turquoise, perhaps picked up on a Route 66 road trip or an Amtrak train trip, at the train station, a gift shop in downtown Albuquerque or Gallup, or in a Fred Harvey Hotel.
Do you mostly sell vintage and antique pieces or do you also sell contemporary pieces?
I also sell new jewelry. The reason is, there are so many people who simply want the look, and who buy fake. It’s estimated that 70% of what is on the market today is made in China and the Philippines and other places. Native American jewelry has been reproduced and faked for many decades already, and so I started selling new jewelry to help nurture a younger generation of buyers who perhaps didn’t have the funds to buy the old stuff yet could afford new pieces. Since new jewelry can be more affordable than vintage in many cases (except when we start talking award-winning jewelers, whose works pull very high prices) I can sell new jewelry and help amplify authentic Native American arts and crafts. I also want to help create a new generation of collectors.
Do you have a favorite style of jewelry or a favorite jeweler?
The Quam and Ondelacy families of Zuni, the Gaspers and Torevias of Santo Domingo, and the Coriz’s and Ronald Chavez also of Santo Domingo. Oh, I should mention Ray Lovato and Tony Aguilar Sr., both of whose heishi is recognizable and amazing. Navajo Kirk Smith (d.) and wife Gloria Begay. Matthew Charley is so good. I love Carlos Eagle. The Livingstons, who do such gorgeous cluster work. Philander Begay (father and son). Oh, I love Mary Jane Garcia from Bluewater. Robert Yellowhorse from Albuquerque, who does wonderful Zias. Betty Yellowhorse coin jewelry. I love so many of the in-house artists, like Edmund Piaso who worked many years for Grandfather Eagle in Old Town. So unassuming and such amazing silver work. I love mother and son silversmiths Elle Curley Jackson and Nick, who own the Silver Artichoke in Old Town. Oh, Allen Aragon in Old Town. I’m still hoping to find a Charles Loloma (d.), who is Hopi, and I love Hopi Arts & Crafts artists, as well as Navajo Guild. I have my name on a Pete Sierra cobblestone necklace that will be coming up later this month. The Plateros, the Tahes, wow, so many fantastic legacies. Honestly, I feel I’m doing a disservice to the many great Native American artists by trying to highlight a few, as the talent is as vast as the Southwest.
How do you stop yourself from keeping everything?!
Because I have to make a living. So what I do is drag my feet on listing the pieces that are the most dear to me. Maybe I wear them for a while. Occasionally, and I mean five out five thousand, I will keep something. I’ll wear it for a year. And then, say the cuff turns because it doesn’t quite fit, or I stop wearing a necklace, I will list it. Those things tend to go the fastest because they are so good. They just are no longer for me.
How did you learn so much about jewelry?
I research. I have a good physical network of folks who I can tap, and then I dig. I have gone to so many Santa Fe and Albuquerque dealers who sell antique and very old Native American jewelry and one has taken me under his wing for Native American jewelry, and one for Mexican/Latin American jewelry. Dealers [of old and antique jewelry] in general hold on to their secrets. I understand that you don’t want to give away your sources, but I do wish more were willing to help someone learn what to look for, how to recognize pump drilled holes in beads, and how to recognize ingot marks and file marks and pulled wire and sawed bezels and such. I think so many are used to getting these very old pieces for nothing and selling them for a ton, so it works to keep people like me from really knowing what we have. I have such gratitude for the two people who have helped me. And when I know as much as those other dealers, I am going to pass my knowledge on to someone younger than me who wants to get into this business. I have a long way to go in learning, and I know I’ve made many mistakes, selling museum quality items for not very much money. Those mistakes are all part of my education.
Have you noticed any sort of trends of what is currently selling quickly?
Earrings earrings earrings. We women love our earrings, the bigger the better. Although many young women today seem to love dainty jewelry and lots of gold tone, but I’m trying to create new trends.
Again, check out Adelita's full blog post, and if you have a jewelry obsession, make sure to tune in frequently to follow her journey.