Santa Fe jeweler extraordinaire Cody Sanderson will be in Durango this Thursday for a show at Sorrel Sky Gallery. His craftmanship combines traditional Navajo technique with more youthful, modern flair. This progressive work isn’t anything like the quintessential designs you’ll see in the turquoise and gentle curves of traditional Southwestern bling; Sanderson takes those shapes and hardens them. His bangles, rings and necklaces drip with giant spiky stars, arrows and bulbous bumps, at times looking almost like battle armor. We chatted with Sanderson about the unexpected people who buy his most badass pieces and how jewelry is “generational art.”
What techniques and materials do you use?I use a variety of techniques that have lasted over 1,000 years and that Navajos have been doing for over 100 years. I also use modern techniques, computer-generated imagery and casting. We did 3-D casting in the last year; we get a component, I’ll design it, then we get it cast in the 3-D form, and decide whether it works or doesn’t. We just introduced a gold line last season. Gold is very forgiving and easy to manipulate because if you mess up, you just melt it and do it again. I can sell a ring in silver for $300 but the same ring in gold goes for like $7,000.
Do you make jewelry for both men and women? When I started making jewelry, it was for men. I’d do large sizes, heavy and bold. But most of the people who tried them on were women, and they wanted me to make them smaller. Some of my most aggressive pieces, that look like they’re dangerous to wear, are sold to women ages 55 to 85! I can’t explain that. Who do you think would wear that? You’d say, ‘some punk rocker or biker.’ Some of the women will say, ‘my grandkids can’t wait for when I get back after Indian market to see what I got this time.’ You never know who is going to be wearing your pieces.
Do you wear jewelry yourself?Yeah, I wear mostly mine because I’m a shameless self-promoter. When I’m working I don’t wear anything, but when I travel and do promotions for my line, I wear more than I should. A few bracelets, a ring or two. That’s pretty comfortable. Though I do have clients who wear like four bracelets on each side – or this one guy had 10 rings on. That’s too much for me. I wear most of my jewelry for a week or two and try to see how comfortable it will be. I make stuff you can wear all day.
What’s the most challenging part about making jewelry?Getting good people to make it. I make the first two or three pieces myself and then introduce it to my workers who help me. I can’t physically do all the jewelry all the time. Our last order was 7,000 pieces. There’s no way I can do that! But they are my designs. I have my hands on the majority of the pieces, to some degree. I show my employees how to manipulate the metal to bring it up to my standard. I do know artists who say, ‘I make and polish every single piece myself.’ They like the accolades. But I know they have extra hands helping them, too. I’m pretty much an open book.
Do you have a favorite piece you’ve made? I’ve made a few pieces that I really enjoy, and somehow it always ends up on someone else’s wrist. Either I give it away as a gift or someone buys it off of me. I think, ‘I can always make another one.’ But it never happens. I try to keep at least one major piece back a year, for my family archives.
What do you love about jewelry?You buy a piece of jewelry and your great-great-grandkids can wear that ring or earrings you’re wearing now. It kind of gives you a sense of immortality. Most jewelry purchases are emotional. People hate paying for a dentist or an attorney, those are necessary purchases that you don’t enjoy. But jewelry is a luxury purchase that makes you happy, and other people happy, too, throughout generations. I even did an ad that said, “It’s not just jewelry. It’s generational art.”
Where is your jewelry sold? A lot of artists in the Southwest say, ‘OK, I’ll sell to Gallup, Albuquerque, Scottsdale and Santa Fe.’ Those are the pinnacles when you’re selling jewelry. But now I’m broadening my horizons. I want to sell in LA, New York, Japan. I picked Japan because they’re the largest disposable income luxury purchasers in the world. And then China follows their suit, times 10.
— Anya Jaremko-Greenwold