Fine Indian Jewelry of the Southwest: The Millicent Rogers Museum Collection. Shelby J. Tisdale. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2006. 215 pp.
Reviewed by Deborah C. Slaney
designer, model, and socialite Millicent Huttleston Rogers, known
affectionately by her children as “MR,” was a fascinating woman. A
courageous battle with rheumatic fever and its complications left her a
fragile but determined soul who sought meaning in life through her
creativity. Captivated by the Southwest in the 1940s, she brought her
family to Taos in 1947 shortly after her friends, Hollywood couture
designer Adrian and his actress wife Janet Gaynor, made the move.
Ultimately, she befriended a circle of talented individuals known
collectively as the Taos Society of Artists.
Shelby J. Tisdale’s Fine Jewelry of the Southwest: The Millicent Rogers Museum Collection
details the story of Rogers’ life from her privileged beginnings in New
York to her love affairs with princes and dukes, numerous marriages and
divorces, and finally her eye-opening introduction to the history,
landscape, spirituality, and cultures of New Mexico. Like many early
20th-century collectors, Rogers perceived that Native traditions were
vanishing and felt compelled to collect major examples of Navajo and
Pueblo art including weavings, pottery, and jewelry. Rogers collected
until her untimely death in 1953, and her family honored her legacy in
1956 by founding the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos.
book serves the museum and anthropological community on several levels.
In addition to providing an illustrated history of Millicent Rogers’
all-too-brief life, Tisdale traces southwestern jewelry making from
prehistory to present using spectacular examples from Rogers’
collection, mostly donated by her son Paul Peralta-Ramos. The book,
however, also includes significant examples acquired by the museum
through other donors. Her survey is drawn from standard publications
including John Adair’s classic Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths and Larry Frank and Millard J. Holbrook’s Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest, 1868-1930, as well as more recently published sources.
collection is wonderful and well illustrated, with makers and dates
identified and provenance information included when known. This kind of
information is useful to the museum community as it helps to establish
makers and dates for other, often undocumented museum collections.
Clearly Rogers had a good eye, choosing well-crafted traditional
necklaces, rings, and bracelets, and examples with large, good-quality
turquoise and careful lapidary work; Although some of the pieces do
reflect the influence of tourism, they are still grounded in
traditional forms or iconography. Documented examples include a
stunning turquoise tab necklace by Leekya (Zuni) purchased at the
Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial in 1947. Tisdale also showcases
contemporary jewelry (although not from Rogers’ personal collection)
including major examples by Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird (Navajo and
Santo Domingo/Laguna), Charles Loloma (Hopi), and other cutting-edge
jewelers whose works are listed with dates and catalogue numbers (Table
I) to assist researchers.
closes with an overview of Rogers’ own dramatic jewelry creations.
While many of her designs were influenced by cultures outside of the
American Southwest, some designs, such as her unusual cross shapes,
reflect inspiration from Pueblo and Navajo silverwork. It would be
interesting to learn if specific examples in her collection (such as
the exquisite cross necklaces illustrated as figures 4.13 and 4.14)
served as her points of reference, or if other types of Native art were
an influence. One pin, Cloud Mountain
(figure 8.1) suggests that Rogers also may have derived inspiration
from Navajo weavings similar to those depicted in a photograph of the
interior of her Taos home (figure 2.1).
In conclusion, Fine Jewelry of the Southwest
is an alluring glimpse into the short life and creative endeavors of
Millicent Rogers, and serves as a solid reference for scholars looking
for a concise, well illustrated summary of the history of southwestern
C. Slaney is curator of history at The Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque,
New Mexico. In 1998, Slaney served as curator/author of Blue Gem, White Metal: Carvings and Jewelry from the C.G. Wallace Collection, an exhibit and catalogue at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. She also curated Traditions: Southwestern Native American Jewelry at the Albuquerque Museum in 2003.