A considered perusal of the Wheelwright Museum’s new Jim and Lauris Phillips Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry is a remarkable journey. The variety and creativity of the work is fascinating, as are the tales told in the roughly chronological sequence of cases. “There are 800 pieces, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg for jewelry traditions in the Southwest,” said museum director Jonathan Batkin. There are also some interesting stories of provenance. “Here’s a squash blossom necklace we’re confident was commissioned by Henry Chee Dodge, who was a chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council, and it was passed to his daughter Annie Wauneka. She sold it to a trader named Clay Lockett, and he sold it to William Randolph Hearst, and it was exhibited at Hearst Castle on the California coast. It was consigned to Butterfield & Butterfield, San Francisco, in the 1980s, and Lauris Phillips bought it, and she donated it to the museum.”

One case in the jewelry exhibit is devoted to the work of Slender Maker of Silver, who is thought of as the first great Navajo guru of silver. “He’s the master of the 19th century, and one of the great masters of the 20th century is his son, Fred Peshlakai,” Batkin said during a recent tour of the exhibition. “We have the museum collection of Fred’s work, thanks to Lauris Phillips.”

Another example of detailed provenance has to do with John Adair, the 20th century’s most noted scholar of Navajo and Pueblo silversmithing. “John wanted to know who were the first Navajo smiths and the first Pueblo smiths. He found out about one of the first Navajo smiths, Atsidi Chon. Then he went to Zuni, and there’s the first Zuni silversmith, Lanyade. These guys are like trade partners, so Lanyade learns from Atsidi Chon, and then he passes it on to the governor of the pueblo, and all these other guys pick it up. Then one of them goes to Hopi and passes on the knowledge of smithing to Sikyatala, whose name means Yellow Light, and here [in an exhibit case] are his tools, his bellows, his wrist guard, and his belt. We sought items to tell the story.”

The Phillips Center, located in a new museum wing completed last year, is the Wheelwright’s first permanent exhibition space. The project started in the early 1990s, Batkin said. At that time the museum had a nice collection of silver from Byron Harvey III, the great-grandson of railroad/hotel entrepreneur Fred Harvey. Byron Harvey was a friend of Bertha Dutton, who was the Wheelwright director in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and they decided the museum had to steer away a little bit from its original mission, Navajo ceremonialism. The collection Harvey gave is material he collected at that time. “The other collection we had was from Leonora Curtin. She started collecting Zuni fetishes in the early 1920s, and she was led to believe by the traders selling them to her that these were really old ceremonial items. Instead they turned out to be an amazing collection of the work of the first generation of carvers at Zuni to create work for a commercial market. They were made at the time Leonora was buying them.”

When the museum curator, Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle, started in her position in 1998, one of her first conversations with Batkin was about bolstering the collections and having a permanent exhibit of some kind. “We thought it could be jewelry. So it’s been a 20-year project, and we had quite a few people give us collections. We have one collector with a lot of Preston Monongye material. We have one collector who gave all of the Morris Robinson silverwork, another who gave all of the Lewis Lomay jewelry.”

What was their incentive? “In almost every case, it was people who were passionate about what they had collected, and they wanted people to see it,” Batkin said. “They didn’t want it hidden away in a basement or to be scattered to the four winds.”