Artist: Lee Yazzie
May 27 2016
Lee Yazzie (b. 1946) may have been a bit reluctant to join the jewelry-making scene, but it was simply meant to be.
Both of Lee’s parents, Chee and Elsa Yazzie, were traditional Navajo silversmiths in the “Checkerboard” area of the Navajo Reservation, south of Gallup, New Mexico. They raised 12 children in a one room Hogan. As a child and young man Lee was not encouraged to learn silversmithing. He did not start to learn the trade until he took a silversmithing course at Fort Wingate Boarding School in New Mexico. As his interest was not peaked then, he went on to study accounting at Brigham Young University.
After a year of campus life he realized that his body, due to a congenital hip deformitiy, could not handle the extensive walking. In 1969 he had a surgery on his hip that was not fully successful, during his recuperation he stayed with his mother. He assisted her with her silverwork. Like most, he began with the traditional Navajo jewelry forms of Silver beads and Squash Blossom necklaces. He sold his jewelry to Trader Joe Tanner who instantly saw Lee’s potential.
Tanner encouraged Lee to grow his talents, which lead to a brief apprenticeship with Harold Johnson in Globe, Arizona. There, he learned the art of cutting cabochons, particularly turquoise.
With his new talent in Lapidary, he began working in 1970 at Tanner’s Indian Arts and Crafts Center. He worked until 1975, inlaying stones for well-know silversmiths, like Preston Monongye. By 1979 the interest in his jewelry had grown so much that he worked independently.
In 1980 he designed his first corn bracelet. Lee once said that the bracelet design remind him of when he used to bring in the corn harvest with this brother Benny. The bracelet design did not come to life until 1982 when he took the fuselage like bracelet and inlayed finely honed Royal Blue Lander turquoise in each slot.
Since then, Lee has focused on quality over quantity, becoming a master of metal and stone, producing no more that 10 pieces a year. His pieces feature 14k gold and sterling silver set with lapis, coral, as well as other gemstones that are distinctly modern, but draw from traditional Navajo elements. Perhaps the most used stone in his Jewelry is Turquoise, due to its cultural and spiritual importance to the Navajo people.
Lee was not the only family member to follow in the footsteps of his parent and become a silversmith, the most well known of his siblings are Raymond Yazzie (known for his intricate mosaic inlays) and Mary Marie Yazzie Lincoln. In total, 8 of his 11 siblings are a part of the jewelry-making business.
He and his brother Raymond Yazzie have been known to include upwards of 500 meticulously inlaid stones in one bracelet! And Mary Marie is known for her fine, and very labor intensive, silver beadwork. All three siblings work have included things like necklaces, rings, bracelets, and belt buckles.
Recently, an art exhibit, “Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family”, featured around 300 of the Yazzie family’s jewelry from 1970s to present day. The name of the exhibit is derived from the Navajo creation story. In a interview for the show, Lee spoke of the creation story: “When the Navajos emerged from the lower world to this Navajo earth world that’s what they named it -- the glittering world—and this is the present world that we live in.”
The show held at the has brought together and presented the jewelry as what it truly is—fine art. It is an expression of Native American culture and talent. To watch a short video about the Yazzie family and this exhibit click here.
Feature Image is an early Lee Yazzie ring.