Diné (Navajo) jewelry maker Julius Keyonnie was the Featured Artist at the Arizona State Museum’s 2009 Southwest Indian Art Fair.
Julius Keyonnie began designing contemporary jewelry in 1990, using many techniques: overlay, engraving, fabrication and lapidary. In addition to working in silver, he recently began working with gold and stones such as lapis, sugilite, opal and coral.
Reared by his grandparents, Julius was taught to respect his culture. The art he creates stems from a strong belief in his Navajo roots. This can be seen in his use of rug and basket motifs, arrowheads and other symbols of Navajo lifeways. In addition to jewelry (bracelets, earrings, bolas, rings), he has created a few “collector’s items” such as jewelry boxes and sculptures. Julius’s skilled combination of technique, materials and creative design has proven his jewelry to be a new form of Diné art. There are no duplicates of any of the pieces he creates.
The following is excerpted, with the author’s permission, from Southwestern Indian Jewelry – Crafting New Traditions (2008) by Dexter Cirillo.
Julius Keyonnie varies the overlay style by using techniques he learned in his career making trophy buckles for rodeos. Rather than oxidizing the bottom sheet of silver, he uses a glossy jewelers’ enamel to blacken the silver. With an engraving tool, he embellishes the cutout designs with meticulous filigree patterns—another technique used on rodeo buckles. Keyonnie alloys his own gold, using 14k and 18k depending on the color he wants in his jewelry. In a single piece of jewelry, he may employ several techniques, including engraving, overlay, lapidary work and stamping.
Among southwestern tribes, rodeos are very popular. They are social occasions that bring people together from remote parts of the reservation. Competitions are fierce among the six events, and the winner is usually awarded a large trophy buckle engraved with the place and date of the rodeo. Such buckles are prized possessions and are often works of art themselves. A calf roper and a team roper on the rodeo circuit, Julius Keyonnie says, “I was born into rodeos. I grew up herding sheep with my brother and learning to rope.” Besides competing on the rodeo circuit—in 2005, he won a vintage 1969 GM truck for team roping—Keyonnie had a career making trophy buckles for more than a decade before turning to his own jewelry in his thirties. He credits the late Herbert Taylor, his wife’s uncle, with encouraging him to start dong his own designs. In 1996, Keyonnie entered his first Heard Museum Indian Market and his first Santa Fe Indian Market, winning two first place ribbons at the latter. Today, Keyonnie divides his time between training horses, making jewelry, and rodeos.