Catching the Stars
Most of us have had the opportunity to view a sea of stars swimming in a dark night sky. We have seen the Milky Way or made a wish on a falling star. Some have experienced a solar eclipse or witnessed a comet. There is nothing quite as captivating. Jesse Monongye thought so when, as a young boy, he watched the night sky from the opening in the roof of his family’s hogan, the traditional Navajo home he lived in with his brother, sister and grandparents. He heard stories told by his grandmother about the stars and the earth. He marveled at the vastness of the sky and thought about himself in relation to that vastness.
It was years later that he would draw upon that childhood experience to place the night sky in his inlaid jewelry. He placed Acoma jet into silver to achieve the blackness of the sky and inset small dots of coral, turquoise and other materials such as gold-lip oyster shell and mother of pearl to represent the stars and the planets. At times, he inlaid radiating bars of these different colored stones to create the essence of exploding stars. Other designs drew from his experiences growing up as a young American Indian who was grounded by the Diné or Navajo teachings that shaped his life.
At an event celebrating his recent exhibit opening at the Heard Museum, Jesse Monongye talked about his grandmother’s teachings. “She always told me not to point at the stars like this.” He gestured with his pointer [index] finger in the common way. “But instead to do this.” He opened his hand and extended it with palm pointing up. “That way you can catch the stars as they pass.”
Monongye was also influenced by Hopi iconography he encountered as a young adult. At first, he placed a Southwest sun face in the sky and positioned it as he would later position the moon. The sun face was inspired by his father’s adopted family. Renowned jeweler Preston Monongye had been raised by David Monongya and his family at the Hopi village of Hotevilla on Third Mesa. Jesse and his father Preston were estranged throughout his childhood and reunited when Jesse was a young adult. Jesse felt an immediate bond with David Monongya and his Hopi family, visited often and used “Monongya” as a hallmark on his jewelry. He learned about the Hopi sun face design from Grandfather David Monongya. It was something that Monongye saw in colorful yarn weavings—a type of Hopi folk art—that depicted the sun face in primary colors. Monongye recognized that he had not seen the sun face inlaid in stone and set about to create it. The work was difficult because the sun faces were small—less than 3/8 of an inch—and cutting and inlaying the stones took great skill.
From the time Monongye began making jewelry on his own in 1979 and into the 1990s an inlay image of the sun face was frequently incorporated into his jewelry, notably his signature bear necklaces or on rings and pendants. At times the sun face was an independent element attached to the top of a bracelet or an even smaller version to the top of a ring. These sun face pendants swiveled and when turned, the opposite side revealed a shiny opal or other semiprecious stone.
Although he used jet often in his early jewelry, the stone was too soft and the small ripples that occurred when polished were not to his liking. Fond of the deep blue color of lapis lazuli, he saw a resemblance of the flecks of iron pyrite found in higher grades of lapis to the stars that fill the night sky, and set about selecting stones for those features and to use them in his night sky designs. In the early 1980s, Monongye’s jewelry underwent several transformations. While attending the rock and mineral show in Tucson, he had the opportunity to see a wide range of exotic stones including Australian opals. Their color and luminescence were appealing and he began to utilize opals for his designs. The lovely luminescent opal came to represent the moon in his night sky jewelry.
They were used not only to capture the essence of the moons and small stars but in numerous other ways. In 1991, he wanted to incorporate a large opal he had seen at the rock and mineral show into a bear necklace he was making. Bear necklaces are unique and distinctive to Monongye’s work and he makes each side of the bear a different design and often a different color. For example, the first bear he made in his current style with the pendant loop on its back had a jet background on one side and a coral one on the opposite. He had been encouraged to meet Dan Garland, who owned a prestigious shop in Sedona, and traveled to meet him. He showed Garland the pendant; when asked what he planned to do on the other side, Monongye responded that he wanted to use opal as the background. He then planned to enter the necklace at the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial and was confident he would win the best of show award. The two men came to an arrangement—Garland funded the purchase of the opal and Monongye drove back to Tucson to buy the one that he had admired. It was his first use of the stone in a bear necklace; when he entered it in the competition, it won the coveted best of show award.
Opals became a material consistently employed in his work, but carving and setting them can be challenging as opals shatter easily. Since much of his jewelry is pictorial in nature, Monongye has also chosen opals to depict monumental features such as the snow-capped mountains of Mount Talmac or icebergs on which polar bears stride. He has also used opals for the small eyes in lady bug beetles and as dragonfly wings.
Another major impact on his jewelry was access to different tools. As his jewelry sold and he acquired more funds, he purchased better tools. When Monongye began to use diamond tools, it allowed him to develop more intricate inlay. Now, more than thirty years later, the difference between his early inlay and his recent work is markedly different. Those years of experience are evident in the complexity and seamlessness of his current inlay jewelry.
More funds also gave Jesse the option to buy bigger stones. He no longer had to piece small stones together, but could now inlay larger sections that he hand-cut. The use of new tools combined with larger stones changed the look of his jewelry. When you move your hand over the surface of his inlay, you cannot feel a change in the height of the stones. When you look at the design closely, you cannot see a line where one stone meets another. Your eye sees only the image. After working with these stones for more than three decades, Monongye knows their properties intimately. He accomplishes the seamlessness of the inlay by polishing each stone individually, covering the polished stone with a layer of hot wax to protect them as he polishes other stones.
Monongye’s complex inlays have the exquisite appearance of miniature paintings. He often depicts Monument Valley, but has also created buckles or bolo ties with the Grand Tetons and other mountain ranges. These inlay designs can be quite complex and at times may depict both night and day or night turning into day. The night skies generally contain planets, shooting stars or comets and also hold opal harvest moons. The day skies may have clouds, lines of rain—like those you see in a southwestern summer storm—the sun, and mountain ranges that have depth and perspective accomplished by cutting different shades of coral, or by selecting an opal and cutting it to highlight the stone’s natural elements that resemble the natural features of the land.
Monongye notes that some of his biggest challenges have been posed by those who collect his work. One customer sent him a postage stamp of Monument Valley and asked for a ring of that size. Cutting the stones small enough to make the inlay for the ring was difficult but he accomplished it. Most recently, a customer who collects Barbie dolls wanted a necklace with small, high-heeled shoes like those the Barbies wear (see page 2). The collector was traveling to California to show her collection when Monongye saw the doll shoes in a basket in her car. He commented on the “white woman moccasins,” found the shoes to be somewhat lacking and set about to make his own design. He made two different sizes of high-heel pendants, interspersing them on the necklace. He carved the individual shoes of diverse stones using apple green gaspeite, blue lapis lazuli, various shades of coral (pink, orange and red) from different bodies of water, black jet, and other stones. The central pendant is one of the larger shoes and is made of eighteen karat gold covered with small pavé-set diamonds.
Monongye has continued to incorporate some of the same stones throughout his career, at times adding newer ones. For example, in his early work malachite was used for the green color, but malachite is toxic when cut and polished, so he began to use gaspeite to achieve the coloration he sought. He often depicts a desert yucca out of gaspeite in his Monument Valley settings. Coral is used in a broad range of colors. His depictions of Mitten Rock in Monument Valley scenes perhaps show it best. He grew up near the rock formations and became interested when just a boy. “I would look at and study them,” he says, “and I wondered why would someone leave them like this.” In his inlay, the subtle color of formation changes is achieved by using different shades of coral. “I was so fascinated when I was a little kid when we would travel by these formations,” he states. “Later on in my jewelry world, I messed with different shades of coral. All of the coral is from different continents. The pink coral is from Hawaii and the South Pacific. The orange is from the South Pacific. And the dark red is from Italy and called oxblood coral and is very hard to find.”
Monongye also favors large cabochons of coral in some jewelry. He has placed some of these beyond the bracelet edge and onto tufa-cast flower stems to give the effect of blossoms on willowy stems. Tufa-casting is a technique that has been used for more than a century by Southwestern jewelers. A type of volcanic rock is sliced into two matching slabs; the design is carved on one or both sides with a sprue hole carved in one end. The two slabs are joined and molten silver or gold is poured into the cavity through the sprue hole. The jeweler has to heat the tufa at the same time so that the molten metal flows evenly into the carved and hollowed stone. Once cooled, the design appears in relief. Although renowned for his inlay jewelry, Monongye is also an accomplished metalsmith. One of his fascinating tufa-cast designs is of a spider web. Carved in the tufa, the web appears as a raised surface on the cast piece. On these he places a three-dimensional spider with a body of Tahitian pearls, Australian opals or high-quality turquoise.
Recent bracelet designs have also featured tufa-cast plants with small coral flowers and hummingbirds hovering nearby. These are topped by the deep red coral cabochons. Often the jewelry may directly relate to the customer. Three small diamonds were set on a bracelet as stars in a night sky inlay to represent the owner and her two sisters. A tufa-cast bull was placed on the reverse of a Monument Valley buckle for the owners who specialize in breeding cattle. A bird of paradise design with floral patterns in inlaid coral was placed on another tufa-cast bracelet for an individual who has a home in Hawaii. These specialty items reference the individuals but also speak to the close and warm relationships Monongye has with those who collect his jewelry. He notes, “These kinds of pieces are very special to me. I have to know the person well when I am designing for them.”
“My pieces are very contemporary and at the same time very spiritual,” he states. His innovative design sense is evident in the brilliant and diverse jewelry made throughout a long and productive career. His creativity is matched by his technical acumen. “It took thirty years from the first bear to the point where I can do very fine inlay,” Monongye points out. “It sometimes seems like they were done days apart. You have to have discipline and patience to make these pieces.”
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