Begay given award
Navajo jeweler contributed to American Indian culture
October 27, 2005
When Navajo jeweler Harvey Begay received a phone call alerting him that he was one of four people chosen to receive the Arizona Indian Living Treasures Award, he didn’t blink an eye. He didn’t realize how big of an honor he was receiving.
It wasn’t until he traveled to the Yavapai Prescott Indian Nation on Oct. 2 that he learned he was receiving a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to American Indian culture and art.
Begay was one of two Navajos chosen for the award this year. The other two recipients were Hopi. Recipients must be at least 60 years old.
Although Begay struggles to sell his jewelry in his hometown of Steamboat, he is a household name in the world of high-end American Indian jewelry.
Begay has been making jewelry since 1972, following in the footsteps of his father, Kenneth Begay, an icon in contemporary American Indian jewelry.
Harvey Begay’s jewelry is deceptively simple, made so by his controlled lines, clean geometric designs and controlled use of stones.
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Most of his work is in gold, and much of it is shaped using casts carved out of tufa stone. Begay carves a mirror image of his design into the soft tufa stone, then pours molten gold into the cast.
It’s a Navajo technique Begay learned by trial and error and improved through an apprenticeship with Rick Charlie, a Navajo jeweler from Flagstaff, Ariz. The secret to a successful tufa stone cast piece is precision in the carving and in the temperature of the metal, Begay said.
Most of his designs are one of a kind, often retailing for $10,000 to $12,000.
Above all else, his clients want one thing, Begay said: originality.
Begay sits at his workbench in his studio above Lyon’s Corner Drug. As he works, ideas for new pieces come into his head. He sketches them with a pencil onto scraps of paper. He erases and redraws until the design is ready.
Begay has been making jewelry for so long that it’s hard to imagine him choosing a different life path. But he didn’t start out in this direction.
Begay earned a bachelor’s in aeronautics at Arizona State University in 1961. He flew in the Navy and worked as a test pilot for McDonnell Douglas.
When work as a test pilot began to dwindle in the early ’70s, Begay had to look elsewhere. He turned to jewelry.
“I didn’t know I was going to be good at it,” Begay said. The first time someone told him he was talented was when a French jeweler named Pierre Touraine told him he was not only good but fast. Touraine helped open doors for Begay at galleries in the Southwest that soon led to name recognition.
“Since then, it’s all I’ve ever done,” he said. “I had to believe in what I was doing.”