By Anne Hillerman
Vernon Haskie, 14k gold bracelet inlaid with red coral .
Jessie and Paul Rosetta
Husband-and-wife artists Jessie and Paul Rosetta are known for their heishi—traditional Santo Domingo Pueblo-style drilled stone and shell jewelry. While many jewelers work with shell, the Rosettas are among the few who start with whole seashells. Using a variety of shells as well as turquoise, jet, coral, slate, and occasionally some gold, the couple creates beads as small as one millimeter in diameter.
Using a variety of shells as well as turquoise, jet, coral, slate, and occasionally some gold, the couple creates beads as small as one millimeter in diameter.
The Rosettas cut the shells into strips and then into squares. After Jessie drills a tiny hole into each bit of shell, they sort the pieces by size and string them on piano wire. Then they wash, grind, and sand them. Finally, Jessie strings the finished beads onto fine cotton and polyester cord stiffened with glue. Paul, an experienced silversmith, makes metal beads and fittings that they may add to the heishi.
Paul & Jessie Rosetta
“We put our time and our hearts into making jewelry,” says Jessie. “We use good materials, and we guarantee everything we make. We’ve never had one piece come back. But people come back to find us at Indian Market year after year.”
The Rosettas have shown at Indian Market since the 1970s and won more than a dozen awards. Collectors value their work because their production is limited and their standards meticulous. Among the couple’s clients is a Japanese businessman who represents them in two galleries there and musician Charlie Daniels, who once ordered 15 single-strand heishi chokers for his band.
Jessie began working with shell as a girl to help support her family, selling to traders who came to the pueblo. “We didn’t have TV or radio,” she says. “Making jewelry kept us out of trouble.”
Paul’s family includes many accomplished silversmiths; he learned his skills from his father. Paul and Jessie began collaborating on their jewelry in 1972. In 1981, they entered several delicate 20-strand heishi necklaces in the Indian Market competition and won first prize in their division.
In recent years, Native American handmade heishi has seen increasing competition from mass-manufactured Asian shell beads and from glass or plastic beads that to the untrained eye resemble heishi. Meanwhile, the price of shells and other materials the Rosettas use has increased drastically, and the availability and quality of some materials has declined. “We used to buy coral by the pound. Now, we have to buy it by the ounce,” Jessie says. To help people understand the time-consuming process that goes into handmade heishi, Jessie takes examples of unfinished components of the jewelry to shows to educate those who stop at her booth.
Despite the challenges, the Rosettas are optimistic that enough buyers will appreciate handmade heishi for the tradition to survive. “I think heishi will be around for a long time, just as it has been around for a long time,” Paul says. “There will always be people who buy it for love. And as a jeweler you have to love what you do, which we do.”
By anyone’s reckoning, Navajo jeweler Vernon Haskie has had a good year. Selected as one of SWAIA’s fellowship winners in 1999, Haskie was given a booth as part of his award. He not only made his first appearance at Indian Market but also captured top honors in the jewelry division with a sterling-silver and red coral concho belt.
More exhibits, awards, and honors have followed for Haskie, who has been working as a full-time jeweler only since 1998. He also exhibited at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, capturing the Best of Show award with another silver and coral belt and winning additional top jewelry prizes. In April, he received the top jewelry prize at a show in Florida, where he competed against non-Indian artists from throughout the country. His winning piece was a 14-karat gold necklace, ring, and earring set inlayed with pink coral, purple sugilite, and green chrysoprase featuring a pendant that sparkled with diamonds.
He plans a special piece, a doll, for this year’s Indian Market. He envisions her as a fire dancer, 3 inches high in 18-karat gold, with a setting of diamonds in her belt and opals on her skirt. He hopes to have many other new pieces for the market as well.
Haskie says he enjoys switching styles. “I have ideas I want to move on to,” he says. “I like to branch out. If I tried to keep doing the same thing, I’d just burn out.” His clientele likes to see changes too, he says. “New work brings excitement.”
Haskie tells up-and-coming artists that there are two things they must do to achieve success. “You have to market yourself and know the business. And you have to have the creative aspect,” he says. “You have to do really nice work, one-of-a-kind work that exercises your creativity. You have to try to expand on it, not limit yourself. You have to venture into different areas, take some chances. If you can do those two things—the business part and the creative part—you’ll make it.”
Haskie and his wife and children live near Lukachukai, AZ, on the Navajo Reservation where he grew up. “My father was my mentor,” he says. “He taught me the basics but never forced anything on me.” Haskie built on these skills through trial and error and by learning from other artists. Today, “the spirituality of my culture gives me much guidance in making the right decisions and choices,” he says. “That’s helping me behind the scenes.”
Haskie’s emphasis on experimentation and innovation may seem in contrast to the Rosetta’s strict adherence to tradition. But all three artists share a commitment to excellence, making them stand-out examples of Native American jewelers working today.
Paul and Jessie Rosetta are represented by Rain Dance Gallery, Bethesda, MD, and Toh-Atin Gallery, Durango, CO.
Vernon Haskie is represented by Gar-land’s Indian Jewelry, Sedona, AZ, and Elk Ridge Art Company, Golden, CO.
Featured in “Portfolio: Tradition and Innovation” August 2000