Hopi artist Charles Loloma (1921–1991) is the most influential Native American jeweler of the 20th century. His designs, which broke from tradition in both style and materials, have inspired generations that followed him. Loloma began his artistic journey while studying painting and drawing in high school under Fred Kabotie and Lloyd Kiva New. This led to a commission to paint murals for the Federal Building on Treasure Island in San Francisco in 1939. The organizer, art curator René d’Harnoncourt, was so impressed by the artist’s skill that he selected Loloma to assist Kabotie in reproducing the Awatovi kiva murals in 1940, which were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
In 1941 Loloma was drafted for military service in World War II, and he served as a noncombat camouflage expert in the Aleutian Islands. After his discharge in 1945, Loloma used the GI Bill to attend the School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University in New York. There, he broke from Hopi norms and studied ceramics, an art form traditionally practiced by Hopi women. After graduation Loloma moved back to Arizona, where his pottery began to gain recognition for its distinctly modern designs with minor Hopi influences seen in glaze colors and stylized Hopi symbols. Loloma and his wife, Otellie, also an artist, rented a space in 1954 in the newly established Kiva Craft Center, founded by his former teacher Lloyd Kiva New. There, artists could rent small studio spaces in a communal setup to make and sell their art. In this setting, Loloma gained inspiration from the other artists, such as architect Paolo Soleri and jeweler H. Fred Skaggs. He was also influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he would visit with New at Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home in Scottsdale.
Loloma began experimenting in the late 1950s with jewelry fabrication. These early attempts used tufa casting to fabricate details on New’s leather handbags and shirt designs. Loloma traveled to Paris in 1963 for a small exhibition of his jewelry. While there he discovered the exclusive world of haute couture and was influenced by its ability to showcase cutting edge designs. Paris was also where he conceived of an early signature piece, the single long dangle earring, yet another break from tradition.
Loloma traveled the world, picking up ideas and influences from each place he visited. A trip to Asia inspired him to begin introducing pearls in his designs. From Egypt, the ancient hieroglyphs and stylistic sculptural forms influenced his pendants of the Hopi gods. The ability to mix many cultural influences with his own Hopi culture helped with the success of his jewelry designs. Instead of exclusively using silver in his designs, Loloma was one of the first artists to utilize gold, elevating his jewelry to a high-end clientele. Small amounts of turquoise added pops of color to the nontraditional materials he used—such as wood, coral, lapis, fossilized ivory, and malachite.
Loloma’s most important and lasting influence on the contemporary Native American jewelry movement was his stacked, or height, designs found on bracelets. The design employed the use of tall vertical slabs of stone, wood and/or fossilized ivory set on the short end into a precious metal base. This allowed the owner to see the bracelet in two distinct views. From above the bracelet looked like a traditional flat inlayed design, but with a slight turn it became something more sculptural and revealed a greater height and circumference. Loloma inspired Native American artists not only with his jewelry innovations, but also in the way he lived his life. His ability to travel led to a broader worldview that influenced his work and allowed him to break from the expected traditional Hopi style. But the artist also stayed true to his Hopi roots and lived most of his life in Hotevilla on Third Mesa, straddling a simple village life and the outside world of fame and fortune.