GRAND TETONS BOLO TIE by Jesse Monongye, of turquoise, coral, ironwood, lapis lazuli, dolomite, silver, fourteen karat gold; 1998. Private collection. Photograph by Kiyoshi Togashi. Courtesy of Lois Sherr Dubin.
Bolo Ties

Contemporary Neckwear of the West


Many Native American artists have developed individual designs using specific jewelry techniques, making their work recognizable to collectors of Native American art.



Bolo ties have held a place in popular culture through several decades. Jon Cryer wore one in the movie Pretty in Pink (1986), Tom Cruise wore a bolo tie in the final scene of Cocktail (1988) and more recently Chris Colfer wore a bolo tie on an episode of Glee. Bolo ties have been made by Native American artists since the late 1940s. For many contemporary artists, a bolo tie is a palette to express artistic individuality.

NORBERT PESHLAKAI (Navajo), Pablo Picasso-inspired bolo tie of silver, coral; 11.4 centimeters, 2010. Norman L. Sandfield Collection. Right: MARIAN DENIPAH (Navajo/San Juan), frog bolo tie of tufa-cast silver, various stones; 7.6 centimeters, 2009. Norman L. Sandfield Collection. Photographs by Craig Smith, except where noted.

Although some of the earliest bolo ties were simple shapes—isosceles trapezoids—artists began to distinguish their work from the onset. Around 1947-49, Willie Coin (Hopi) made a unique bolo tie for Dr. Harold Colton, director of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. The key part of the bolo tie—the bolo ornament—is positioned at the collar line, where the knot of a cloth tie would rest. Strung on a leather cord or strap, which is often braided, the ornament serves as the focal point of the tie. Coin created this early bolo tie using the design of the museum’s logo in silver overlay, a process of cutting designs into a sheet of silver and placing that over another silver plate. At times, the silversmith leaves the lower plate smooth and at other times, textures the design with stamp marks.

Each end of the bolo strap is also covered in a silver or gold tip. At times the bolo tips are quite elaborate, repeating the design of the ornament or elaborating upon the theme. This early bolo tie Coin made for Dr. Colton was quite unusual for its time. Coin made tips distinctive to Colton’s background as an archaeologist. One tip was shaped like a pick and the other was in the shape of a shovel.

Many unique bolo ties would be made by Native American artists in subsequent years. While some bolo ties emphasized only a central turquoise stone with silver tips, others were more elaborate and expressive of an artist’s work. Many Native American artists have developed individual designs using specific jewelry techniques, making their work recognizable to collectors of Native American art.

One jeweler who has distinguished his work since he began making jewelry in the late 1970s is Jesse Monongye. He was one of several emerging artists who were included in a special issue of Arizona Highways that featured jewelers in the April 1979 issue. Monongye had learned jewelry techniques by watching his father Preston work and by watching some of the jewelers who did the stone inlay in his father’s jewelry. Jesse became adept at both metalwork and fine inlay. Some of his early inlay featured an expansive night sky with lapis lazuli for the sky and dolomite, turquoise or other stones for the stars. In the 1980s, Monongye began to create an inlaid-night sky design that featured Halley’s Comet as a central element. When creating an inlay design for a bolo tie, Monongye held the design in a silver framework.

NORBERT PESHLAKAI (Navajo), silver seed pot bolo tie of silver, coral, jade, shell, and other stones; 7.9 centimeters, 2008. Norman L. Sandfield Collection. Right: LONN PARKER (Navajo), bolo tie of tufa-cast silver and Chinese turquoise; 8.9 centimeters, 1990s. Norman L. Sandfield Collection.

Monongye recalls a time in the early 1980s when he accompanied Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to dinner at a local Scottsdale steakhouse. Pinnacle Peak Patio was known for its Western theme and for the restaurant staff’s practice of cutting off cloth ties worn by their customers. On this particular evening, Senator Goldwater wore a bolo tie and declared to the restaurant staff that it was Arizona’s neckwear. The staff must have considered it appropriate Western neckwear as the Senator and his bolo tie were allowed in the restaurant unscathed.

Through the years, Monongye continued to hone his skills and his inlay became more detailed and complex. He also expanded his repertoire of stones to include jet for the night sky and opals to represent big, harvest moons and other celestial features. In addition to the night sky, Monongye also began to depict the red rocks of Monument Valley, a familiar scene from his childhood. Monongye has illustrated other mountain scenes such as the Grand Tetons from Wyoming (see cover) as well as designs from his culture such as those of Navajo textiles. He has also designed some bolo ties specifically for individuals and friends incorporating images of cattle or horses that pertain to an individual’s lifestyle or career. In recent years, Monongye has used gold for bolo ties and more recently he has selected eighteen karat gold.

Monongye says of his bolo tie and other inlay designs, “My work is like [Navajo] weaving. I see the design in the pieces I make. During my childhood, I drew on soft sand while herding sheep or on soft pieces of coal we removed from the ground.” Some of Monongye’s works reference nature. He says, “I might look at a rosebush and see a spider on one side and a ladybug on the other. I will never stop designing.”

Jewelers Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird have been making jewelry since the early 1970s. Bolo ties are just one of the jewelry forms they make that include a range of necklaces, belts, earrings, and brooches. Their work is distinguished by the inclusion of unusual stones and by creative designs. Johnson and Bird are largely self-taught jewelers. Johnson took a two-week course in California in 1969 and an advanced jewelry course at Utah State, but learned many techniques by reading John Adair’s book The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths and by experimentation.

CHARLES LOLOMA (Hopi), ram’s-head bolo tie of tufa-cast silver; 4.4 centimeters, circa 1960. Heard Museum Collection. BADGER-PAW BOLO TIE of tufa-cast silver; 8.9 centimeters, early 1960s. Heard Museum Collection, Gift of Mareen Allen Nichols.

Initially, Johnson and Bird made their different jewelry forms in silver, or they used red or yellow brass because they liked the way the brass looked when combined with jaspers, agates and other unusual stones they selected. Their earliest bolo ties were in silver and featured high-quality turquoise, but they also began to use stones such as chalcedony, petrified palmwood, Yowah opal, Mexican lace agate, or spectrolite. Their bolo ornaments generally feature one or two stones. When the artists use two stones, they often select stones of contrasting but complementary colors. At times, the artists will choose a stone with inclusions such as rutilated quartz. In those instances, the natural features of the stone as well as the quality and size of the stone allow it to stand alone.

About 1980, Johnson and Bird began to use fourteen karat gold in one of their thematic belts for which they are so well known [see Ornament, Vol. 30, No. 3]. By the mid-1990s they began to use eighteen karat gold for their jewelry including bolo ties. At times, they position tufa-cast metal accents near the stones on the bolo ornaments. Tufa is a soft, volcanic rock that can be used as a casting mold. Many Native American jewelers carve designs into the tufa that appear as relief elements in the cast metals. Historically, tufa-cast silver jewelry was polished smooth. Since the late 1950s, when Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma left some surfaces rough rather than polishing, other jewelers have preferred the rough surfaces.

Like other Native American artists, Johnson and Bird have developed bolo tips of their own design. They create elegant tips that are tubular shaped in silver or gold and enhanced with designs of four-point stars that they cut out of the metal. Johnson and Bird make about three or four bolo ties annually. Noting that the bolo ties have a comfortable place in the West, Bird says, “For mainstream people it’s a costume, an oddity, but in the Southwest, it’s not.”

A contemporary of Johnson and Bird, Navajo artist Norbert Peshlakai has also been making silver jewelry since the 1970s. Peshlakai likes to tell a story about enrolling in a painting class at Haskell Junior College in Kansas only to learn that the class was for house painting rather than easel painting. As an alternative, Peshlakai took a jewelry class where he found he was adept at making jewelry. Peshlakai’s jewelry is known for the detailed stampwork he adds. He makes many of his own stamps and might use several to create a single design.

Peshlakai recalls seeing bolo ties in an issue of Arizona Highways when he was in high school. He made his first bolo tie in the mid-1970s. He remembers making a bolo tie with a design of a Yé’ii, a Navajo ceremonial figure, but in an abstracted form. Peshlakai recalls how pleased his father was with the design and notes, “When my dad first saw this, he didn’t say anything but he ran to show my mom.”

PAT PRUITT (Laguna/Chiricahua Apache) AND CHRIS PRUITT (Laguna/Chiricahua Apache), bolo tie of stainless steel, twenty-four karat gold, eighteen karat gold, Mediterranean coral, industrial diamonds; 2010. Private Collection. Photograph courtesy of the artists.

Peshlakai is also one of the creators of silver seed pots. Based on Ancestral Pueblo pottery vessels that were used for annual seed storage, silver seed pots are a modern-day interpretation of an ancient artform. Peshlakai and Comanche/Mexican artist Michael Perez, who works under the name of White Buffalo, each began to make silver seed pots around 1975. Traditionally, silver seed pots are made similarly to silver beads. Two halves are domed and soldered together. One “half” is generally flattened to form a base and the other has an opening and at times an elongated neck in a manner similar to a pottery jar. Peshlakai’s silver seed pots were featured in Old Traditions in New Pots: Silver Seed Pots from the Norman L. Sandfield Collection, a 2007 exhibition at the Heard Museum and a companion catalog of the same name. Afterwards, Peshlakai made a bolo tie in the shape of a silver seed pot for collector Norman L. Sandfield. Peshlakai added stone inlay to enhance the bolo tie just as he had added inlay to one of the jars featured on the cover of the catalog. Like Johnson and Bird, Peshlakai has chosen to enhance his bolo ties with tips fashioned as long, silver tubes. He began to make his own tips when he made a bolo tie for his father. Rather than use the lightweight, silver commercial tips that were available, Peshlakai chose to add ones that he personally made.

In another instance, Peshlakai created an ornament based on a Picasso sculpture he saw while on a trip to Chicago. Initially, Peshlakai planned this as a brooch, but its size and subject matter made it a perfect bolo tie ornament. The ornament has a stylized face depicted in layers of silver appliqué. The overall surface of the ornament was hammer-textured, creating a fitting contrast between the background and the stylized face.

MICHAEL KABOTIE/LOMAYWESA (Hopi), Awatovi mural bolo tie of silver overlay; 7.6 centimeters, 2008. Norman L. Sandfield Collection.

Hopi artist Michael Kabotie was well known for both painting and jewelry. Kabotie’s designs in both artforms often referenced the ancestral kiva murals at Awatovi, an ancient village in the Hopi mesas. Kabotie moved effortlessly between the two artforms. In 2005, his drawings took on a larger scale while his jewelry became more intricate. Some of the drawings were re-created as small silver plaques. Kabotie’s jewelry included bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and bolo ties. The bolo tie ornament allowed him to express the design in a larger jewelry format.

Kabotie studied art as a small boy and was introduced to jewelry techniques by Wally Sekayumptewa in 1958 while Kabotie was still in high school. Additional guidance was provided by Kabotie’s cousins. Kabotie’s father, Fred, was recognized for his beautiful paintings and for his instrumental work in teaching the Hopi silver overlay style for jewelry in the 1940s. Michael Kabotie was a dedicated artist and a poet. He was a member of the painting cooperative Artist Hopid from the late 1960s into the 1970s. The abstract designs Kabotie used in both painting and in jewelry became his trademark.

VERMA NEQUATEWA/SONWAI (Hopi), bolo tie of silver, fourteen karat gold, fossilized ivory, coral, lapis lazuli, sugilite, wood, and turquoise; 6.4 centimeters, 2009. Norman L. Sandfield Collection.

Another Hopi artist, Verma Nequatewa (Sonwai) creates complex patterns by aligning and positioning various stones. Nequatewa learned jewelry techniques by apprenticing with her famous uncle Charles Loloma. Nequatewa and Loloma worked side by side at a studio in Hotevilla for more than twenty years. By the early 1970s, Loloma had developed distinctive bolo tips that flared at the base and give the appearance of a flower opening its petals. Nequatewa adds a single turquoise bead to each tip when she creates her bolo ties.

One area rarely seen by the viewer is the bolo back. A wide range of fittings have been used by Native American artists. Many contemporary artists form a figure-eight out of a piece of wire to fashion a bolo fitting. The size and weight of the ornament will determine the weight of the cord and the thickness of the cord will determine the thickness of the wire needed to hold the ornament in place so that it does not slide down on the straps. The opening in the figure-eight shape is made to accommodate different cord sizes. Braided cords can be thin or quite thick. Also, the positioning of the figure-eight fitting can determine the ease with which the bolo tie ornament can be moved on the strap. Nequatewa continues to use a bolo tie fitting that has been employed by Hopi silversmiths for several decades. Two strips of sheet silver are cut and soldered to the back plate of the ornament in lateral lines. At times these are crimped to further secure the ornament and keep it from sliding on the strap.

Bolo tie artists might reference elements from the natural world or choose simply to create abstract designs. Marian Denipah is a young artist who has recently learned tufa-casting. For her first bolo tie (pictured on page 33) she referenced a design of a frog that she had seen on Zuni pottery. But she depicted the head of the frog in a highly stylized form and the appendages on the front legs are elongated like fingers on a hand while those on the back feet are webbed. Denipah chose to inlay colorful stones in the body. She also made the tips in the shapes of tadpoles to complement the design of the ornament.

Brothers Pat and Chris Pruitt have collaborated on some jewelry. Most recently, the two made a bolo tie out of stainless steel, a material that Pat often uses for his contemporary jewelry. The bolo ornament has industrial diamonds—a natural addition to the steel. Coral inlay is added to the sides of the bolo ornament, a specialty of Chris. Their work exemplifies some of the exciting changes in the artform. Bolo ties, like other contemporary jewelry, continue to change and evolve as artists develop new designs and as young artists begin to work in the artform.



Native American Bolo Ties: Vintage and Contemporary Artistry, upon which this article is based, shows through November 4, 2012 at the Heard Museum, 2301 Central Avenue, Phoenix, Arizona 85004; www.heard.org. The accompanying catalog is reviewed in this issue’s Publication Reviews.




More Bolo Tie images



Cirillo, Dexter. Southwestern Indian Jewelry: Crafting New Traditions. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2008.

Dubin, Lois Sherr. Jesse Monongya: Opal Bears and Lapis Skies. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2002.

Osburn, Annie. Visions of Sonwai: Verma Nequatewa. Hotevilla, AZ: Sonwai, Inc., 2007.

Pardue, Diana F., with Norman L. Sandfield. Native American Bolo Ties: Vintage and Contemporary Artistry. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2011.

Pardue, Diana F. Shared Images: The Innovative Jewelry of Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2007.

——. Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2007.

Struever, Martha H. Loloma: Beauty Is His Name. Santa Fe: Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 2005.




Diana F. Pardue

co-authored with Norman L. Sandfield the new book Native American Bolo Ties: Vintage to Contemporary Artistry. Pardue is also the author of Shared Images: The Innovative Jewelry of Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird (2007), Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry (2007), The Cutting Edge: Southwest Jewelry and Metalwork (1997), and has written articles for Ornament and American Indian Art magazines. She is curator of collections at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, where she has worked since 1978.


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