Can you talk about your upbringing and path into jewelry making?
My grandparents were jewelry makers and I would watch them create pieces and sometimes help them with buffing, so it's a long lineage, silversmithing. My last name is Platero, which means silversmith. My great-great-grandparents were given this name because they were silversmiths, on both sides of my grandmother and grandfather.
They were very traditional, so growing up they spoke Navajo and were also spiritually very traditional Navajo with the Hogan. I grew up very much in a traditional environment, and silversmithing was very much a part of it. I was always around it, but honestly never really thought about doing it as a profession. It was just a part of me, and I never thought that it could be something more.
I grew up between Arizona and New Mexico in Window Rock and Fort Defiance until I was about eight or nine, when I moved to Flagstaff until I was 18. Throughout this time, I would come back often to New Mexico because my family's farm is just between Gallup and Grants, in a place called Blue Water Lake. I studied journalism and media studies in college, so I don't have any formal background or anything in jewelry other than growing up around it.
you decided to study journalism instead of jewelry making?
I was always fascinated with drama and TV presenting and magazines. I was obsessed with fashion magazines when I was younger. I would buy Japanese fashion magazines and all kinds of things, so already I was very much into that world. I thought that journalism would be really interesting and you can travel, because I love traveling. Even though I took a different route, it's actually helped me in being where I am.
How did you get back on your path into making jewelry from there?
When I graduated from high school, I took a year off and lived in Rome and studied language and art and photography. I came back to the States after a year and realized that I didn't want to be here anymore. I knew there was so much more to see and experience.
So I moved back to Europe and finished school in London. While I was in school, I did a lot of fashion internships. During this time I came upon the opportunity to work for Brooke Gregson, an American fine jewelry designer. This is where I got my start in the jewelry world. Gradually her business kept getting bigger and growing so much that when I graduated she offered me a full-time job.
Brooke works with gold and precious and semi-precious stones, and when I started working with her as her righthand person, I would help her design, I would run errands for her, I would invoice and write emails. There was nothing that I wouldn't do, and eventually I began traveling with her to L.A. and Hawaii and Dubai. She worked with these amazing goldsmiths in London who have been doing this forever. I would go and pick up pieces in their workshop and it brought back many memories of my grandparents and their workshop, and the quality they would produce.
Can you talk more about the inspiration behind your designs?
When I began to think about developing something of my own, I always thought about how the work that my grandparents created was just as high quality as everything I saw overseas — and this jewelry is sold internationally and bought at this level, while my grandparents are selling at little markets, flea markets, pow wows, or trying to sell to trading posts. I thought about how the quality of my peoples' work wasn't being respected and how I could change that. I wanted to take it on, but in a newer way. We have to keep evolving and moving forward. I asked myself what is the best way that I can keep moving forward and create jobs on the reservation through our craft, while still preserving it.
I decided to take the traditional technique of Navajo Jewelry but make it more modern and clean. I really want these pieces it to be more accessible to a broader market. Native American jewelry is very specific. I know a lot of people who absolutely adore it, but they would never wear it. I wanted to create more versatile pieces that you could wear with your Cartier Love Bracelet or something that is a little more discreet. This being said, my designs still have a piece of the Native American culture and story and the meaning.
now one year back in the states and so much has happened! Can you tell us more about the direction your work has gone?
It's crazy how everything leads to the next.
I knew I needed help while I was here, so I went to this Navajo Economic Development Summit and met a lot of Council Delegates within the Navajo Nation. They were very interested in what I was doing and introduced me to the CEO of Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise. It's located in Window Rock, on the Reservation. I told them what I was doing and asked them to help me.
you asked for help? that's an important question because that's not always easy to do for any of us!
I did. I showed them what I was doing and told them that there is a lot of potential here. I stressed how I had returned to work locally and wanted to help my people, and that we needed the help of the Council Delegates. They agreed to help me and paid for my subsequent trip to Paris.
They helped me start up.
I am in a very male-dominated world as well. All of the silversmiths are men. There is maybe one buffer who is a woman. There are only a couple of women; most of them are administrators. Most of the Council Delegates are men. I have really had to step it up and be confident enough to be able to present myself in a way that is respectful and professional.
I don't think that the younger generations know how to access the resources. I hope this shows the Tribal Council is there, and they can do that with other people too. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time to meet the right people. I was able to have this vision and express it and ask for help. I think that a lot of people are just afraid to ask for help.
At that point I only had one store, Barney's Japan, but they could see the potential. I am in six stores now in Japan, and so I am able to pay for myself now. I just needed that initial investment and help, in getting me there again and in getting the pieces made, and now they are my manufacturers. So I work with the Window Rock Manufacturing Facility.
It's tremendous and it says a lot about the Navajo culture. Not many cultures have that accessibility!
Yes, it's very unique. I pinch myself every day: How did this unique experience happen? The thing with the Navajo is that we have our own government. We have our own "White House" in Window Rock, and we have our own stores and manufacturing facility. We have a lot, actually, for our tribe, that a lot of other tribes may not have, and so there is access to funding and all sorts of things, but you must know who is who. I somehow ended up meeting the top people on the Reservation, and they were able to navigate me and help me get in and meet people. We are a community that supports one another.
Where do you manufacture?
Everything is made here, in Santa Fe or Window Rock. We use the highest quality stones, and everything is made by master craftsmen. They have been doing this for 30 years. It's really hard to go wrong with something when you work with some of the best.
We feel Your jewelry really shows the beauty of your culture and still tells the story, but has a bit more of a contemporary feel. would you agree?
Definitely, it's more modern and contemporary. I take a lot of inspiration from the Bauhaus and Art Deco period. Also a lot of my grandparents' jewelry that I have seen from the '50s is very much art deco-y. I have always loved that aesthetic, and Scandinavian Design and Danish Design is one of my favorites. I take a lot of inspiration from that as well.
My new designs that I am working on for September, I would like to do an abstract butterfly. Something that is very not literal or pretty. I want it to be very art deco-y and more feminine. I am really excited.
Why is it important to you to make this kind of jewelry?
Growing up and seeing my grandparents go into town and sell their jewelry, or see them taken advantage of by non-Native people selling their jewelry, by buying it so cheap and then marking it up like crazy, also made me want to have a larger stake in the game. I want to be able to empower my people and tell them to take pride and dignity in their art and work. I have seen it done so many times, and it really upsets me, and I think about my grandparents, and I don't want it to be like that.
Younger people aren't wanting to make jewelry anymore; I see it in my own family. None of my cousins make jewelry. Some of them know how, but they don't do it as a way of life. Even my aunts and uncles don't really do it. They do it occasionally, whereas for my grandparents, that was their way of life. The farm and their jewelry was their way of life.
What is something that is most rewarding?
Working with the silversmiths is the most rewarding. They are Navajo; they have grown up on the reservation, and some have probably never really left. They are predominantly older men, with a few younger people that are buffers. I love to see that, that there is this younger generation that is adopting the silversmithing. That is something that I would eventually love to do, to start teaching the younger generations how to silversmith. Everyone is like family. It really brings back this familiar feeling that I no longer have because my grandparents are no longer alive. That whole feeling of the workshop and the magnifying glasses that they wear, it's very nostalgic.
It's so heartwarming to work with them, and they are just so talented at what they do. Every single piece that they make is beautiful, and they are so proud. I love that I can bring this new energy to them as well.
I am kind of challenging them with new designs or new ways to think, and they are catching on. I brought a couple of Japanese clients to them to visit the facility. They get to see and meet new people from all over the world that they wouldn't otherwise get the opportunity to meet. It's amazing that I can bring all of these worlds together.
Have you seen any challenges with stepping out of the traditional designs?
The only challenges have been with family, because I come from such a long lineage of it. There was a challenge once because I was trying to figure out a name for my brand, and my name is Platero, meaning silversmith, so I was trying to incorporate my last name into it. It became this kind of a big deal within my family because my grandparents were very well respected silversmiths. I guess they didn't fully understand what I was trying to do, or what I am doing. They thought that I was just going to use the name and, I don't know, exploit it, I guess. In hindsight, I am glad that I didn't, because now it's Dineh, which means "the people," and it's Navajo, although the proper way to spell it is Diné. It makes more sense.
What advice would you give to others?
Follow your heart. Don't follow the money or jobs that you know are going to give you that. I think if you follow your heart, no matter what that is, that you will find a way to make a living through that. This is because you are doing it with your heart, and not with any other intentions of monetary value.
When I started this, I had no idea how I was going to fund it or anything, but I knew that I wanted to do it. I felt it in my heart, and I knew that I had to follow it through. Sometimes things just open up, and it's worked, and it's working, and I am just so thankful. I think that a lot of people tend to worry about "How am I going to pay the bills?" and all of those things — and I think if you just let things happen organically and just follow your heart, as cheesy as it sounds, it will work out. I do think that that's how you are going to find where you need to be. You will find value, and it can be anything, and you can make a living through that.
Coming from a very spiritual culture, I was taught at a very young age about prayer, so you have to always be thankful. You pray in the morning, you pray for what you want, you pray for other people, so I very much have adopted that in my life and I think it's helped a lot, and it's also keeping me grounded. That definitely has helped in creating my business as well. I have been doing lots of praying. I also meditate and run. Running is also very big in my culture, and a lot of my family runs.
What inspires and motivates you?
My grandparents and my mom, definitely. My aunt is also a huge inspiration for me. She was an attorney for the Navajo Nation, and she traveled all over the world helping indigenous communities and teaching them how to empower themselves. I always knew I was going to come back and help my people, but I had no idea how. I realized that I would help them through art, as opposed to how she did it as a lawyer, but it's still for the same goal.
I never thought that I could put all of my worlds together, Europe, London, Navajo Nation, my experiences being from the Navajo Reservation and being brought up that way. I never imagined in a million years that I could bring those worlds together. It's just so beautiful that I can and it is possible. Where I grew up always seemed very separate. It was like two worlds: My family was one and my other life was the other. I never knew that I could bring them together — and I am. It's been a beautiful journey.
Samantha was born into a family with a long tradition of Navajo silversmithing dating back to her great grandparents. Samantha found it inevitable to continue the family tradition and carry on the values and craft that her grandparents embodied and lived. Inspired by the highest quality and handmade techniques of her grandparents, Samantha collaborates with Navajo silversmiths to create finely crafted pieces that translate Native American traditional jewelry with a modern vision.
Words: Samantha Platero
This interview has been edited for clarity.