NEW YORK — More than three decades after his death, Charles Loloma’s transcendent jewelry continues to influence jewelry design and attract new fans. Actor Lily Gladstone wore a Loloma ring set with coral, lapis, sugilite and turquoise on the October 2023 cover of British Vogue that highlights Native American designers.
Loloma (Hopi, 1921-1991) was a key figure among Native American jewelry makers, helping the medium break away from regionalism to find appeal far from the American Southwest. He and fellow Native American artists such as Fritz Scholder and Kevin Red Star moved past the constraints of earlier traditions to create art that was timeless and modern.
“Charles Loloma and these folks said we are more than just Native artists; we have the right to be artists in a fully modern sense and continue to use our mythology and culture to inform our art, but use it in an entirely modern way,” said Gillian M. Blitch, president and CEO of Santa Fe Art Auction, adding that their art evolved in the same way as non-Native American artists did. “Loloma was among the most outstanding in terms of what he broke away from and the way he revisualized Native American jewelry in a thoroughly modern sense. He changed everything with his eye.” He introduced the concept of asymmetrical earrings (one long, one short) back in the 70s that he took to Europe, where it was immediately latched onto by French and Italian designers.
Loloma was clearly rooted in his cultural heritage, but he worked with materials that were not typical for Native American jewelry, such as gold instead of silver, exotic woods, and gemstones such as lapis lazuli, ivory and pearls.
Though he was a deeply spiritual Hopi medicine man at heart, he was of the modern age, driving Porsches, traveling around the world on the Concorde and toting Gucci luggage. He also had a knack for sourcing exceptional stones around the world. “He had a remarkable eye for very rare stones; he had the best lapis, the best sugilite and the most remarkable Mediterranean coral,” Blitch said. When he used turquoise in his pieces, he favored rare types such as old Lone Mountain or Lander Blue.
An artist through and through, he and his first wife, Otellie, began making pottery, and he painted. He soon found his true calling in creating jewelry that blended his cultural traditions with European influences and modern techniques and materials. Early on, he faced challenges from his own community, as some said his jewelry was not “Indian” enough. His submissions were rejected three times from an Inter-Tribal Ceremonial for this reason. But Loloma had a clear vision and resolutely pushed the unique elements of his work. “He was fearless in that he stayed true to his style and believed in the relevance of the work he made,” said Santa Fe Art Auction’s Jewelry Specialist Dezbah Stumpff.
Loloma made all kinds of jewelry, but his cuff bracelets are among his most desirable pieces. The best examples are highly sculptural, such as a circa-1975 ironwood cuff bracelet in silver and gold, turquoise, lapis, coral and bone that attained $80,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Santa Fe Art Auction. This specialty auction in June 2022 featured the personal collection of Loloma and his second wife, Georgia, following her death. This bracelet was the first piece of his jewelry she bought. “According to Georgia, this cuff is a perfect example of what Charles called the ‘hurt line’ — a curvature so perfectly formed that it literally hurts to observe it’,” according to the auction house’s writeup of the bracelet.
The market for Loloma’s work has never been soft, but after this auction, there was an uptick in prices as buyers once again realized how modern and striking his work is, Blitch said.
Another fine Charles Loloma bracelet is an 18K gold and multi-stone inlay cuff with raised strips of coral, lapis lazuli, onyx and turquoise, which earned $60,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022 at Santa Fe Art Auction. Making this piece notable are the “exceptional turquoise, the asymmetrical elegance in the placement of the stones and the unexpected pop of color provided by the deep red Mediterranean coral,” said Stumpff. “Each element is so incredibly thoughtful. The more you look, the more you see his sensibilities, his sense of placement, perspective, color.”
While his cuff bracelets, including his katsina cuffs that are abstractions of katsina or kachina faces, are highly collectible, so too are his canyon-style pieces for which he stacked semi precious stones. “They are stacked in a way that mirrors the stacking of the mesas,” Blitch said.
Strikingly colored charoite is not often used in jewelry, as it’s rare. A slim Charles Loloma bracelet having charoite and lapis lazuli cobblestone inlay amid gold spacers realized $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2023 at Hindman.
Brought to the Southwest initially by Europeans, Mediterranean coral, the source for most vintage coral necklaces, is now scarce. Pieces such as Loloma’s 15-strand coral and silver necklace, which rose to $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022 at Santa Fe Art Auction, are harder to find. The color red has historically had great cultural significance to Native Americans, and the Hopi peoples were among those who used this material in bead-making. They often considered coral to be an indicator of one’s social standing, so the more strands a necklace had, the better.
The three criteria by which to judge Loloma belt buckles — and indeed, most of his jewelry — are design, composition, and color. Checking all those boxes was a signed silver and mosaic inlay belt buckle, set with turquoise, lapis, coral and ironwood. It took $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2023 at Hindman.
A standout ring by Loloma is a circa-1980 creation in gold, set with two Lone Mountain turquoise stones, which made $18,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022 at Santa Fe Art Auction. Featuring a border of notches in the gold around the turquoise stones, this timeless ring looks as fresh as when it was made.
The word ‘loloma’ means ‘beauty’ in the Hopi language, and the jewelry artist certainly lived up to his name, creating innovative, wearable designs that are not just statement pieces. His jewelry is rooted in native aesthetics but it is also modern and exploratory, venturing past the strictures of how Native American jewelry artists previously worked.