By Amanda Nichols
“I’m a Route 66 man. Always on the road,” Ben tells us, showing off his collection of rare, fun road signs. But he’s not only referring to his love of motorcycles and highway paraphernalia; Ben’s referring to his start as a jeweler. According to Ben Nighthorse, one of America’s most celebrated Masters of Contemporary Indian Jewelry, that was how an artist got started. Ben described the rush of working in the studio all week, driving Friday to L.A. or some faraway destination, showing his work for two days, driving back, sometimes through the night, and doing it all over again. That was what artists had to do for weeks on end!
This was back in the late 60s when Ben Nighthorse was just making a name for himself. As one of the first Indian jewelers to use gemstones, his work was received with criticism by some. However, his extraordinary designs were noticed enough, won the right awards and were then featured in so many magazines that he became a celebrated Santa Fe Indian Market attendee. Down in Ben’s studio, he flipped through old magazines his wife Linda keeps so well organized, showing us some old designs.
The remarkable thing is how Ben can remember who bought so many of his pieces and who owns them now. But then again, Ben is a sentimental guy, holding onto his own style and often coming back to older designs. While showing us his machinery, tools, materials and techniques, he pulled out stencils, or cut outs of different animals, figures he had used throughout the years. Because Ben likes to come back to them, he stores all these “stencils” in little cough-drop tins. And again, thanks to Linda’s wonderful organization he still has his design drawings to refer back to.
Though Ben has some signature styles like his “Running Horse” design, he is constantly coming up with new ideas. It’s convenient for him to have his studio in his home because who knows what hour of the day he will get an idea and run downstairs to work. We were fortunate enough to see some of his sketches and new designs. During our visit he was breathing new life into an old bracelet design that took our breath away.
Next Ben showed us his buffing and polishing studio where all the inlay and final touches are done. Helping him with the polishing and buffing are two men, Calvin and Mike, who have been with him for 20 + years. They graciously made room for us in his studio space as Ben showed us uncut turquoise, sugilite, coral and other stones. When it comes to shells and stones, Ben is most attracted by color. However, the most interesting part about his inlay and stonework is that the three artists almost never know what shade the stone will be until after it is polished.
From his early-career weekend trips to the Santa Fe Indian Market to his work at Sorrel Sky Gallery, Ben Nighthorse’s jewelry is celebrated for its quality and contemporary Native American design. Our trip to his studio only reaffirmed how careful and precise he is with his exceptional jewelry work. We thank Ben and Linda for welcoming us to their home and studio for an inspiring morning of education, creativity and delicious pastries.