Announcer: Welcome to an Arizona State Museum podcast. This podcast is part of a series of short interviews with Native American artists. This interview took place at the Southwest Indian Art Fair in 2008.
Lisa Falk: I'm Lisa Falk, director of education at the Arizona State Museum and I'm here today with Jennie Vicente, who's a jeweler from Zuni Pueblo. I'm going to ask her a little bit about her life, and her jewelry making. How are you?
Jennie Vicente: I'm fine thank you.
Lisa: Thank you for joining me. I was wondering, Jennie, if you could tell me how you became a jeweler?
Jennie: When I was getting out of high school, I went to a nursing school in Albuquerque. Then I got a job in this area, which is the Pima Reservation where they have the PHS Indian Hospital. I started working there, and my husband was going to ASU in the meantime, so I was supporting him through his education. Then we moved to Tempe, where he went to school so he doesn't have to drive back and forth, commute back and forth. Time was hard, because I was supporting him through school and driving back to work in Sacaton at the Pima reservation. So I started doing jewelry, and before then I used to help my parents. They were silversmiths, and they were doing petit point, their style. So I learned the basics from my dad. He supplied part of his extra tools, and whatever is needed to start. So I started, and from there on, then I just...
After my husband finished his education, he got hired on with IBM. So I got into fulltime jewelry making. Basically just doing the silver work, then I got into the stonework. But we developed needlepoint style, and my parents were doing the petit point, which is like a teardrop type. But eventually we got bored of the styles, making anything, bracelets, necklaces, earrings basically.
From then on, it's just my own. I just develop my designs and whatever. During the shows where we would participate, I would look into what ladies wear, and then got my designs from there. What would the ladies like. What they would wear. I just developed my own style.
Lisa: So you come up with your ideas, and then, what do you need to make them happen?
Jennie: They call them the supply stores. We get our silver, the wire, the silver wires, everything silver. We fabricate them. I fabricate them. Fabricate means that you do your own bezel work, the ones that hold the stones. You do your bezels. I do the [chettering?] file. That's a file with teeth on it. You just, an inch of silver, it's a certain gauge that you use to make the bezels. You have to file those out, slice them probably an eighth, or whatever size you're going to make—[to the] depth of housing which will hold a stone. Then you slice them up, cut them up into their size, whatever stone size you're going to use. Form them out, and then solder them onto a silver sheet. Whatever size you're going to make, just cut them into the sizes.
Then after you get done with your soldering, I usually do maybe two or three layers. The center part, and then the next round, and then the other round. Whenever you get done with that, put [in] your silver balls. I make my silver balls, tiny ones, that go around the bezels, with a wire. I just cut them the same length, and then heat them up and they form into balls.
So I use those to decorate, or put them around a finished project. Then cut them out with a jeweler’s saw, which is a real fine saw. Then you just saw it all off, file it, and then the product is finished.
Lisa: And then you just fit the stones in. Is there any glue or anything?
Jennie: No, I don't use glue. I use the backing. If it's a big piece I use foil. So, most of the time people use sand, sand dust or paper, but I use foil so when it gets wet, when paper gets wet, that's why it raises the stone, and sometimes they come out. So I use foil on the backing of the larger stones, so if it should get wet or get moist, it doesn't pop the stone out.
Lisa: How long does it take you to make a piece, from the time you get an idea, until the time it's ready to sell?
Jennie: When I start a piece, I try to do all my bezels. Sometimes I will make maybe 400 or 500 pieces of those bezels, to a thousand pieces, depending on what I want to make. And different sizes too, because I have larger stone. What I call them, large, extra large, regular, medium. I have different sizes that I make bezels out of. Those silver for the housing, for the turquoise, or whatever stone I'm going to put in. Then I divide all the stones, whatever their use. So it takes me a while to do the filing for the bezels, cut them up, and then size them up to form them out. And after that the silver work gets done, then I get into stone. I slice my stones, whatever turquoise I use. I use a diamond blade to cut my turquoise. After that I slice them up again, whatever length I want to use; the bigger, medium, or regular size. Put them on the dop sticks.
Lisa: What is a dop stick?
Jennie: A little bit larger than a match stick or a toothpick. They're sticks. I have probably several hundred sticks that I have, and they're different sizes too. Some of them, you see the doll pins, the doll sticks, those long ones? I just cut them up to different lengths so I can use all of them and then taper the ends so they'll be easy to dop the stones with jewelers wax. It's a special wax that you heat it up, and then put the wax on one end of a stick, and then put it on a stone. Heat the wax up, and then pick up your turquoise, and then it cools up and it hardens up. So that's what I use.
Lisa: And then you can place the stone in the bevel?
Jennie: No, you have to shape out the stone first. Shape up the stone, whatever it's going to go in. Like this piece here, just shape it out, the turquoise or whatever. Shape it out, put it in the... Measure it, and see if it will fit in there. I do probably, whatever I make, maybe it's 10 pairs of earrings which have 20 stones a piece, then I make that many, but more. Because I do several in a lot, then I do the colors. It might be a dark color to a real pale color, so some of my earrings are real bright, and then it goes down to the pale color. So that's how the color is established.
And then after you grind the stones, polish them, set the stones, and then the earring or whatever piece is done. Then you go through the buffer. You buff the piece, make it real shiny, and that's the last stage. Before that, you have to put the ear post or clip on. Solder that on before you put into the muriatic acid, which makes it white.
Lisa: How many pieces do you think you make in a month, let's say?
Jennie: For this show, I remember, I made like about 55 pairs of earrings.
Lisa: Wow, you only had a couple left on the table. [laughing]
Jennie: Yeah, I counted the earrings, well.... On most shows, I make about that much, but it might be more. Sometimes I make more. That's just a pair of earrings that I make. It's about 50 plus. And then sometimes I do necklaces and bracelets, but this time I didn't have any.
Lisa: And where do you sell your work? Mainly at shows or...?
Jennie: Mainly at shows. Santa Fe, Will Wright Museum carries my stuff. Packards in Santa Fe carries my stuff. Mudhead Gallery in Denver, I haven't supplied them, but they used to carry my stuff. Who else? And then I have a lot of private collectors that come by or call, and then I supply them.
Lisa: So this has become your way of making a living, and your art form?
Jennie: Right, yeah.
Lisa: Do you have children?
Jennie: I have four kids, they're all grown. My oldest daughter is married, has three kids, two girls and one boy, and one of them is here. The oldest is here, going to school and working at the same time. All my kids live in Albuquerque since we moved from Tucson some years back, everybody moved back to Albuquerque, but we're on the reservation, the Zuni Reservation.
Lisa: Do any of your children do silver work?
Jennie: No, I've been trying. They don't have the patience to do it. No, my oldest daughter works for a dentist, and my second daughter is a computer programmer. She has a job as a programmer. The two sons took over my husband's background area, doing fiber optic insulation, so that's their business. They have a business. We're just the two of us with our grandson in Zuni. We're raising one of our grandsons.
Lisa: That's nice. Maybe he'll become a silversmith.
Jennie: Oh, I hope so. We sometimes say, but I try to encourage my kids. They like the jewelry, but they just don't have the patience to sit down and do it. It's a process. It's a long process. To begin, in the beginning, it's just making your housing, and making strips, and cutting them up to different lengths, and making bezels, and from then on just setting them down.
Lisa: What do you enjoy about jewelry making?
Jennie: I like to make designs. I like to just think up a design and... I don't do it on paper. I have my bezel set and then I just set them in whatever design I want to do. And I have silver stamps that I stamp to make a design and that's basically how I do it. I don't do it on paper, it just comes from my head.
Lisa: You said you had learned from your father, but are there other people in your family that are silversmiths or jewelers?
Jennie: My sister is. My brother used to do inlay, but I think he's more into ranching right now, so he doesn't do that much. So, my sister and I.
Lisa: And did your grandparents?
Jennie: My grandparents, no. They were mostly ranchers and farmers. They didn't do any silvers, just my parents. That's where I learned the basics from, especially my dad. Where I got my whatever extra things, the tools that he had, had given me. That's where I basically started and I'm thankful for them. He's deceased right now, my mother is still living, and she does a little bit, but not that much.
Lisa: Well, thank you. Is there anything else that you would like to add to this?
Jennie: I just enjoy doing the shows, meeting a lot of people, and just be friendly. I enjoy meeting friends and making friends.
Lisa: Well thank you very much.
Jennie: You're welcome.
Transcription by CastingWords